AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) – Jimmie Johnson crushed the field at Phoenix International Raceway last fall, running away to his third straight victory in the desert with ease.

He’ll try to make it four in a row Saturday night, but is straying from the strategy that has worked so well for him. Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team came to Phoenix with a brand new setup, hoping it will be enough to equalize any gains made by his competition.

“Just hoping that it’s going to be faster and better,” Johnson said Friday. “I’ve come in too cocky in my own mind,” he said. “I’ve come in not really confident enough in some respects because of what’s gone on during the season. Through those highs and lows, I’ve kind of found a spot where I come in with confidence, and I feel like we’ve got a good plan.

“I take today as today, and then tomorrow just really try to keep it simple and stay even-keel through it all.”

It’s not clear what more Johnson can do to be better at Phoenix, where he has nine top-10 finishes in 11 starts. Johnson has led 505 miles at Phoenix, and his average finish is a 5.5 – second only to Martinsville (5.3) of Johnson’s best tracks.

Despite his successful record, he managed to turn it up a notch in sweeping both races last season.

Johnson led 337 of the 625 laps raced at Phoenix last year, and was out front for all but 96 in the fall.

But it’s not enough for a No. 48 team that is always pushing for more. With NASCAR’s ban on testing this season, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus weren’t positive they’ve maintained their superiority, so they decided to try something new during Friday’s practices.

In straying from what’s worked so well, they are giving themselves an opportunity to be good later in the season at similar race tracks.

“Without testing, it’s a good opportunity to work on our short-track program, our mile program,” Johnson said. “What we learn here will cross over to Richmond, will also cross over to New Hampshire to a certain degree. Even if it doesn’t work, we can go to the shop, dig in deeper and then show up at Richmond a generation ahead of where we’re at now and maybe a step closer to a better package.”

Changing things up a bit also keeps Johnson humble. He’s won a record-tying three consecutive Cup championships, in part because his team has consistently adapted to the newest technology.

But being so open-minded did not come easily. It took returning to a race track content with his past success – then watching other cars pass him by – for Johnson to figure it out he must constantly push the envelope.

“We’ve showed up at tracks where we’ve had great success at and didn’t react soon enough (when) the competition caught us, ‘All right, we won here the last three or four times. We’re good. We don’t need to worry about it. The track will come to us,”‘ Johnson explained. “We start the race, we’re going to the back, and guys are going by us. So we really try not to get caught up in that.”

AP-ES-04-17-09 1920EDT

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