As crew chief Chad Knaus reminded Jimmie Johnson late in Sunday's Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, sometimes it pays to look at the big picture.

Though Johnson ran in the top five most of the afternoon, the big picture on Sunday simply meant finishing the race near the front of the field. So, when Kyle Busch knifed between Johnson's #48 Chevrolet and the lapped car of Sam Hornish Jr to take the lead on lap 369, the reigning Cup Series champion wasn't concerned. And, when race runner-up Denny Hamlin grabbed the second spot a few laps later, it was still no big deal in the overall scheme of things.

"My deal wasn't to race the #18 and, even when Denny got to me, I let him go," said Johnson, who jumped four positions to ninth in the Sprint Cup standings, the first time this season he has occupied a Chase-eligible position. "I knew I had a top-three, top-five car. I just wanted to finish this race. I wanted to see all 500 laps.

"If it was [down] to the last pit-stop, and I had a shot at it, throw caution to the wind at that point. Up until then, I needed to figure out how to run 500 laps here, finish up front. That was my goal today, and we did it."

Johnson revealed that the gameplan for Bristol had been cooked up as soon as the previous round, in Atlanta, had finished, the #48 knowing that it needed a strong result to keep tabs on those leading the point standings.

"I think, in general, we needed a weekend like this here," he admitted, "It started two weeks ago, when we went to work on the set-up for this race. We created a plan, stuck to it. Off the truck, the car was quick - we were right on par with everybody and had confidence going into qualifying. Then the weekend just kept building.

"So, now that we've executed from qualifying to the race, we have a very good starting point to come back with, and that's something we haven't had. Every time we've come back, we've been chasing one of our team-mates' ideas, then trying to put my style of set-up under it. The concept on the #24, we would use, but free it up some more. I typically like this, so let's try the #24 set-up with some more of this. We really didn't know just what we wanted.

"This weekend, though, we didn't play that game. We stuck to our guns. I feel, coming back, we'll be much better and be able to come back next weekend."

The #48 Chevy suffered a possible win-stealing glitch during the last pit-stop under caution, but the outcome wasn't as bad as Johnson feared it might have been.

"I feel that, whoever came out in the lead on the last pit-stop, was going to be in pretty good shape," he noted, "We all kind of assumed there would be a couple of cautions. The stop before that, I held onto the lead for quite some time. Maybe I didn't have the fastest car over the whole run, but it took off well. If we'd had a couple of quick cautions, I think I could have held on 'till the end.

"But we didn't get that done. We had a problem, I think, getting the left rear on. I'm not sure, but it sounded like that to me, I haven't talked to [crew chief] Chad [Knaus] about it, but it doesn't sound like the jack went up high enough so they could get the tire on - they were fighting with it. Somebody yelled 'jack it up some more' and, once it went up a pump, the left rear went on.

"We were lucky there wasn't a lot of cars on the lead lap and we were strung out on pit-road with how slow our stop was. We came out fifth, but I assumed we were 15th because it had to be a 20-second stop...."

Without the problem, Johnson was confident of breaking his duck for the season.

"I think we had a shot at the win," he insisted, "We had a little trouble on that pit-stop, but third place is awfully good. In some ways, to be that close to a win and to see the #18 car pull into Victory Lane, I can now see what the leaders do, and I can visualise being in that position someday where, before, we were so far off and had some decent runs but really weren't in the race, racing for the win. Today we did that, so I'm very proud of all the work.

"Truthfully, I wish we had another 500 laps to go, I feel great. I was really getting a rhythm of this race track and understanding what I need to do and how to lead Chad in adjustments. I really have to thank Chad and Greg Ives of our engineering staff who sat me down a couple weeks ago to really look at this race track and what I really need here. I made my wish list and they gave me what I needed.."

by Reid Spencer
Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service



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