3-18-07 -- Jimmie Johnson already has his eye on the big prize.
The reigning NASCAR Nextel Cup champion passed Tony Stewart three laps from the end Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway and went on to win his second straight race.
``We're thinking championship already,'' said Johnson, only four races into the 36-race season. ``That's really the mode anymore. You have to think about points and being in the top 12 all the time.''
Johnson had the car to beat Sunday, leading 132 of the first 238 laps. But the only laps he led the rest of the way in the 325-lap event on Atlanta's 1.5-mile oval were the last three.
The 25th victory of his Cup career moved Johnson within 28 points of current series leader Mark Martin, who plans on skipping next week's race at Bristol and the race the following week at Martinsville.
That would leave Johnson just 20 points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon and 17 behind Jeff Burton going into Bristol, the fifth of the 26 races that will determine the 12 drivers in the Chase for the championship.
``Right now, it's easy to feel good about things and there no doubt that the championship is what's on our minds,'' Johnson said. ``When you come into the sport, you focus on victories and top 10 and now the Chase is a big mark for the teams to make.
``But, after you win a championship, I think it changes you a little bit and that's what you really focus on and what you want to do again and again. Since we came into '07, the team meetings and discussions, everything is about trying to win another championship. Right now things are going good and we're doing the right things, but it's way too early to get too excited.''
Johnson, who overcame a penalty in the pits at Las Vegas to beat Gordon the previous week, had some problems with tire wear late in Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500.
Stewart, a two-time Cup champion, appeared on the way to his first victory of the year after coming off pit lane ahead of Matt Kenseth and third-place Johnson after the final stops by the leaders during a caution flag on lap 311.
After the green flag waved with 11 laps to go, Johnson took just three laps to get past Kenseth, then took off after Stewart in the duel of Chevrolets.
Johnson pulled side-by-side with Stewart just past the finish line on lap 322. Johnson then got his nose out ahead and, as the two cars drove through turn two, Stewart scraped the wall.
Johnson easily led lap 323 and continued to pull away from Stewart, going on to win by about half the front straightaway. He credited crew chief Chad Knaus for making some key adjustments on the last pit stop.
``At the end, when it came time to race for checkered, Chad made some great adjustments to help me on the short run,'' Johnson said. ``That's the one thing I was lacking compared to the 20 (Stewart). At the beginning of a run he had a little more grip and could drive a little harder.
``At the end, I can't say that I've driven a race car that hard before. It really was challenging internally in my own head to drive that hard to chase Tony down and get by him. That was just a great, great race.''
Stewart, who overcame a long pit stop in the early going when one of his crewmen dropped a lugnut, led 121 laps and was happy with second place. But he wasn't particularly happy with Johnson.
``I wish he had at least given us room to race for it,'' Stewart said. ``But we gained some points today and that's what this team needed.''
Johnson apologized, saying he wished he had given Stewart more room.
``Tony had a good run on the inside coming off the corner and when I heard he was coming it was just too late for me to adjust,'' the winner said. ``I certainly squeezed him into the wall and didn't leave him a lot of room, but it wasn't intentional.''
Kenseth wound up third, followed by Jeff Burton and heralded rookie Juan Pablo Montoya, who barely held off Clint Bowyer to record his first top 10 and by far his best finish in five Cup starts.
``I'm getting the handle of it,'' said Montoya, who also won a Busch Series race on a road course in Mexico City several weeks ago and got as high as third in Sunday's race before slipping a bit at the end.
Martin, who finished 10th, remained in the lead by eight points over Gordon, who overcame a tire problem and a lost lap to finish 12th. Burton remained third, 11 points behind, and Johnson stayed in fourth, moving to 28 points back.
But longtime NASCAR star Martin switched teams this year in order to cut back to a partial Cup schedule and has said he will sit out the next two races, despite leading the points.
``Somebody told me I was still leading the points,'' the 48-year-old Martin said, grinning. ``I don't really know, but that will be gone after next week. At least we can say we were leading when we took a break.''
The Bristol race next Sunday will also be the debut of NASCAR's new Car of Tomorrow, which could throw a wild card into the mix, depending on which teams figure out of the all-new, bigger and boxier car first.