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Champ shifts into third

From Wire Services The Spokesman-Review

He won 10 races last season and his second consecutive NASCAR championship, yet Jimmie Johnson isn’t the marquee driver on his own team.

He’s not even No. 2.

But that’s not important to Johnson, who isn’t after attention or fame. No, the two-time defending champion is chasing history, trying to become only the second driver to win three straight titles. His pursuit begins in today’s season-opening Daytona 500 at Daytona Beach, Fla.

From the pole.

Take that, everybody.

Not since Cale Yarborough did it from 1976 to 1978 has a driver won three consecutive championships, but Johnson has people believing.

“There are certain sports teams, whether it’s football or baseball, they get on a run and they get momentum,” said Ray Evernham, who failed in his bid to win three straight titles as Jeff Gordon’s crew chief during the 1990s.

“You’ve got to have a good plan, good talent, and you’ve also got to have the right breaks. But I believe if anybody can do it right now it’s that 48 car. It certainly seems like they are starting off right where they left off.”

When Johnson posted the fastest time during qualifying last week, it seemed as if the air had been knocked out of the garage.

Everybody came to Daytona knowing Johnson, the 2006 winner here, would be strong. They had hoped off-season gains would have closed the gap a bit, but Johnson’s dominance made it clear his team would make a strong run for its third straight title.

“I feel very good about where we are, and I know what we’ve done in the off-season has only made us stronger,” Johnson said. “But I still think we have a lot of room for improvement.”

That’s bad news for the rest of the industry, which has grown weary of watching Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team dominate week in and week out for much of the past five seasons.

But Johnson will have strong competition from within Hendrick Motorsports, which now includes Dale Earnhardt Jr.

NASCAR’s most popular driver instantly became the star of the super team, supplanting four-time series champion Jeff Gordon. When Sports Illustrated recently photographed the four Hendrick drivers together, Johnson was in the back row.

“It’s because he was the tallest,” crew chief Chad Knaus reasoned. “They had to stick him behind all those short dudes.”

He has yet to grab the spotlight at Daytona, where Earnhardt has stolen the show.

Nationwide Series

The first half of Saturday’s NASCAR Camping World 300 was an insurance company’s dream: no damages, no claims.

In as sterling an opening-act race as has been seen at Daytona International Speedway, the 43-car field got separated and strung out until a caution flag following a lap-55 pileup brought everyone back together.

From there, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota teammates Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch held the lead through a couple of minor interruptions, and some actual racing, before the claim adjuster’s nightmare: an eight-vehicle melee on lap 111 of 120 that sent cars spinning, debris flying and smoke soaring over the frontstretch.

In the end, Stewart prevailed to win.

It was his third victory in the February race in the past four years, the others coming in 2005 and ‘06. Busch was second, his second runner-up finish in 17 hours and Toyota’s second points race victory in the same time frame. Todd Bodine beat Busch in Friday night’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck race when Toyotas finished first through fourth.

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