At Fontana, Calif. 3 p.m., Fox

Johnson in position to make real headway

jutter@charlotteobserver.comMarch 23, 2013 

— The NASCAR world is well aware Jimmie Johnson is coming home his week as the Sprint Cup Series makes its annual visit to Auto Club Speedway for Sunday’s Auto Club 400.

What it may not be ready for is how the outlook for the 2013 title chase may change dramatically if Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team come away with another strong finish, or just as likely – a win.

Auto Cub Speedway is the closest Johnson comes to a hometown track, located about a two-hour drive north from El Cajon, where he grew up.

It’s also the site of Johnson’s first career Cup series win on April 28, 2002.

Johnson often cites his first win at the track as one of the highlights of his career. “It was like a weight was lifted off of my shoulders,” he said.

“I felt like I might be able to keep my job after that.”

As if.

Sixty wins and five Cup series championships later, Johnson again finds himself in good position to use a strong finish or victory at Auto Club Speedway as a springboard for another successful season.

The championships and five victories at his hometown track offer plenty of reminders of what Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, are capable of each season.

But perhaps even that is not enough.

“Every year I’ve started I’ve been concerned. You don’t know until four or five races in really where you stand,” said Johnson, who will start 18th in Sunday’s race.

“It’s hard to even leave Daytona feeling too good about things even with a victory because it’s just such a different kind of race. I think the more time goes on the less concerned I am.”

As well he should be.

When Cup teams leave California this weekend, they will have, for all practicable purposes, visited four of the five major types of track on which they spend the vast majority of the 36-race season.

Auto Club Speedway is a 2-mile track and the series has already competed at a superspeedway (Daytona), a 1-mile track (Phoenix), a 1.5-mile track (Las Vegas) and a short track (Bristol). The only distinctly different track missing is a road course.

Johnson has already shown remarkable consistency at each of the tracks, starting with a victory in the Daytona 500, a second at Phoenix, a sixth at Las Vegas and he was running consistently up front at Bristol before a blown tire relegated him to a 22 nd-place finish.

Even without the chance to stay in the hunt for the win at Bristol, Johnson’s early-season consistency is rivaled by only reigning Cup champion Brad Keselowski and Hendrick teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.

A strong performance on Sunday and it should become clear Johnson – much to the chagrin to his competition and fans of other drivers – will be well on his way to contending for championship No. 6.

“I have always looked at five races in. We have had a couple of short tracks and a couple of big downforce fast race tracks and I kind of judge it from there,” Johnson said.

“I’m feeling like I know what my car is doing, but once we get through California and have one more race on a big track we will have our package pretty much sorted out.”

Sunday’s race makes for an interesting test for Knaus as well.

“This is a really good race track. It’s easy to say that about a lot of venues, but Fontana is a track where the drivers can really go and explore different lanes,” he said.

“The crew chiefs and teams can explore different ways to make the race cars go fast because you can work with horsepower. You can work with aerodynamics. You can work with mechanical grip.

“If you are fortunate enough to get all three of them right, you run really, really fast.”

Get it right Sunday and the next stop is two weeks away at Martinsville, Va.

Johnson only has seven career wins there.

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