Drivers not panicking near NASCAR's halfway point

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Associated Press

Posted on May 22, 2014 at 5:04 PM

Updated Friday, May 23 at 3:08 AM

CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson knows the panic to make Sprint Cup's championship chase is coming.

The defending Sprint Cup champion is among those drivers yet to win a race this season, the first since NASCAR expanded its 10-race playoffs to 16 cars and put a bitter emphasis on wins over point standings.

Nine drivers have won the first 11 races, with Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano the two-time winners. And each new winner has gleefully talked of locking up a spot to race for a title.

For Johnson, it's far too early to fret about lost opportunities. Not with the Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR's longest race, coming up Sunday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

"There are always different challenges in this sport and I know we'll get it," Johnson said Thursday.

Johnson got the week off to a strong start, taking the pole for the race with a fast lap of 194.911 mph. It was Johnson's fourth career pole here and he try for his record-breaking seventh Charlotte victory from up front.

"We had a strong race car all day and I'm obviously very pleased with my performance," he said.

Johnson's not worrying about his place this season. After all, he says the window to make the championship has widened with the increase from 12 to 16 teams "and I really don't think there's going to be 16 different winners."

The Sprint Cup series opened with seven different winners this season. Harvick ended that streak with a second victory this year at Darlington and Logano followed that with win No. 2 at Richmond.

But then Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon added their names to the already lengthy NASCAR playoff list with victories at Talladega and Kansas.

With just 15 races left, regular Sprint Cup winners like Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart join Johnson on the winless list.

It's no fun for Clint Bowyer to see his team outside looking in at the moment. Bowyer has made the chase in five of the past seven seasons, finishing a career-best second in points two years ago.

"The first half certainly isn't where we're accustomed to running and hasn't been as smooth as we need it to be," said Bowyer, who is 20th in points. "The flip side to that is we're only halfway and we've got a long ways to go with a lot of racing."

And those winners this season aren't slowing down, either.

Harvick, in his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing, has relished racing up front and challenging for the checkered flag most weeks. He's had an 11th place, a seventh and a runner-up to Gordon in his past three outings since taking the Southern 500 last month. Still, he's 10th in the points standings because of four finishes of 36th or worse this season.

"Sometimes I think our problems are sticking out a little bit more than they would in a normal situation just for the fact you are racing for a win, you are not racing for 10th," said Harvick, who won the Coca-Cola 600 in 2011 and 2013.

The changes in the Chase format have caused some teams to change strategy. Road course specialist Marcos Ambrose says those layouts are his team's best chance to score a qualifying victory and it's important they test there.

"I would say that the road course is a factor," the Richard Petty Motorsports driver said. "It's a factor we're thinking about, but we're not necessarily putting all our eggs in that basket."

Johnson's had a basket of victories since joining NASCAR with Hendrick Motorsports in 2001. In fact the only time, Johnson's gone winless was that first year when he raced just three times. Only one time in the 12 seasons since has Johnson won as few as two races. He was a six-time winner last year as he won his sixth title.

"As long as we keep a smart mind on points and have good finishes and keep ourselves up in points, we'll keep our postseason hopes alive," Johnson said. "And in the postseason we have amazing race tracks for us."

But Johnson is prepared for that final month of racing when he knows the hard-charging competitors will take chances knowing their postseason is at stake.

"I think once we get toward the end of the year, you'll definitely see some aggression," he said. "There could very well be some heated racing up front."

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