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Twists present problem

Jimmie Johnson never has won at Infineon, but he is starting second and likes his chances for a breakthrough.

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Jimmie Johnson never has won at Infineon, but he is starting second and likes his chances for a breakthrough.

Sprint Cup points

Through 15 of 36 races. The top 12 drivers through 26 races make the Chase for the Championship.

Driver Pts. Back

Kevin Harvick 2,169—

Kyle Busch 2,147 22

Denny Hamlin 2,122 47

Kurt Busch 2,051 118

Matt Kenseth 2,019 150

Jimmie Johnson 1,999 170

Jeff Gordon 1,987 182

Jeff Burton 1,945 224

Greg Biffle 1,865 304

Carl Edwards 1,856 313

Tony Stewart 1,840 329

Mark Martin 1,826 343

Clint Bowyer 1,783 386

Dale Earnhardt Jr.1,745 424

Ryan Newman 1,735 434

Today's race

Toyota/SaveMart 350, 3 p.m., Infineon Raceway, Sonoma, Calif. TV: TNT

SONOMA, Calif. — Jimmie Johnson hasn't been to Victory Lane in 10 races, his longest drought in two years.

NASCAR's four-time defending champion has finished outside the top 10 in five of the past seven races and dropped to sixth in Sprint Cup points.

Now he's at Infineon Raceway, one of five tracks where he has never won a Cup race. It's not that being in wine country poses a problem. Johnson's just not that good at road-course racing.

"Everybody knows how much I have focused on it and how badly I want to win on a road course, especially here," said Johnson, a Californian. "It's time."

Johnson has progressively gotten better at Infineon, where he has cracked the top five just twice and has averaged a 17th-place finish in eight starts. He was a career-best fourth last year but didn't carry that improvement into Watkins Glen, the only other road course in the series, where he was 12th in August.

But after qualifying second for today's race — he briefly held the pole until he was bumped by defending winner Kasey Kahne — Johnson believes he has a chance at a road-course win.

"I feel really good about it," said Johnson, who has run two Grand-Am events this year for more practice. "We've been testing and doing everything I can to be a better road-course driver and to get our cars better."

His lack of success in Sonoma became a topic of conversation this weekend, even as Johnson keeps ducking the assertion he's in some sort of slump. He has scoffed at that notion — even though he had three finishes of 31st or worse last month.

But he's clearly aware of the perception. He joked that "everybody keeps saying I'm in a slump" when presented with his trophy for being the first quarter winner in voting for driver of the year. Johnson won three of the first five races this season.

"I get accused of being a little intense at times, so I'm trying to make sure to laugh a little bit," he said, referring to his slump reference. "There is no doubt that the month of May was tough on us. … We're not where we want to be, but I wouldn't call it a slump."

Johnson could go a long way to silencing the slump talk with a win on the twisting 11-turn, 1.99-mile course through Sonoma, a track that requires a different skill set from the usual all-left-turn racing on NASCAR's ovals.

"It is fair to say that when you've won on a road course, people look at you differently," driver Jeff Burton said.

The series boasts several drivers who have mastered the technique, and the annual stops at Infineon and Watkins Glen offer an unusual opportunity. One possibility is Marcos Ambrose, who qualified sixth and is among the favorites. Juan Pablo Montoya, a celebrated former Formula One racer, is always considered a favorite. Then there's Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart; they have a combined 16 victories at NASCAR's two road courses.

"It's definitely a place I feel like we've got the potential to win, even before we make a single lap," said Stewart, a two-time Sonoma winner.

That's a position Johnson would love to be in. His plan of attack is to remain patient.

"I get in other road-course cars, and I'm plenty fast and competitive," he said. "I just need to figure out how to do it over the course of 90 laps."

Twists present problem 06/19/10 [Last modified: Saturday, June 19, 2010 9:17pm]
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