LONG POND, Pa. (AP) – Jimmie Johnson has been in this position before; heading into the second Pocono race with a nice lead in the NASCAR Nextel Cup standings.

Last year, he left the Pennsylvania 500 with a win and a commanding 232-point lead. Now, Johnson is again the points leader and hoping to avoid the hiccups down the stretch that cost him the championship last season.

He didn’t exactly get off to a rousing start in practice Friday for the Pennsylvania 500. Johnson’s Chevrolet got loose coming out of the first turn, spun and crashed into the wall during the first session.

Johnson was not hurt and simply shrugged off the accident.

“It’s no big deal,” he said. “You hate to lose a race car that was one of our best race cars, but all of our race cars are good.”

For that he credited crew chief Chad Knaus.

“Chad works really hard to build equal cars,” Johnson said. “We’ll be in great shape with this backup car. I’m not worried about it.”

Johnson, who swept Pocono last year and finished sixth here in June, has used eight top-five finishes and two wins (Las Vegas and Charlotte) to take a 77-point lead over Greg Biffle. There are seven events remaining before points are reset among the top drivers – probably 10 – for the 10-race title run.

All Johnson lost Friday was an hour of practice. He lost much more after Pocono last year, when his points lead evaporated after disastrous performances at Kansas and Talladega.

Not even four wins in five races could help him rebound, and he lost out to Kurt Busch.

“You’re always smarter after the fact,” Johnson said. “Last year, we tried things that we really felt were going to end up working and they didn’t. We got back up to speed midway through the Chase and did what we needed to do.

Even with the points lead, this has been a bit of a tumultuous season for Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team. Rivals accused him of aggressive driving that caused several accidents, and his third straight Coca-Cola 600 win at Charlotte was marred by fans booing and throwing beer cans at his car.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. even called Johnson an “idiot,” and blamed him for causing a 25-car accident at Talladega Superspeedway.

Johnson has deflected the criticism, insisting he’s only focused on winning races. While his lead could be wiped out with a few poor performances, Johnson said the points leader has an advantage.

“There’s a small edge mentally, I believe, to be the points leader going into it,” he said. “But last year, it didn’t really matter. Kurt Busch got into the final 10 and put together 10 really good races and was the champion.

“With a short format and 10 to 15 guys in it, I think everybody has a shot.”

First, a driver has to qualify and it looks as if Johnson will be without Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon in the Chase.

Gordon is in 15th place and hardly has the look of a contender.

“If you look at the (No.) 24 right now, they’re doing everything they can,” Johnson said. “They’ve had bad luck, they’ve had some bad performances and they’re trying to get things turned around.”

Gordon refused to rule himself out of contention.

“I’m not out of the championship, not yet,” he said. “We still have a shot to get back in that top 10 and anybody in that top 10 has a shot at the championship.”


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