Bruce Martin
Monday February 22nd, 2010

FONTANA, California -- If Jimmie Johnson goes on to win a fifth-straight NASCAR Sprint Cup title this year, he can thank his "Golden Horseshoe" that seems to be stuck in a certain part of his anatomy. And there's no place where a "Golden Horseshoe" is more important than Las Vegas, site of next Sunday's third race of the season.

After experiencing bad luck at Daytona with a broken axel and a 35th-place finish in the Daytona 500, good fortune returned to Johnson in his home state of California where a perfectly-time series of events late in the race not only kept him from falling one lap down, but actually put him in the lead. The combination of events could have been called "The Perfect Storm" for Johnson, who sailed away safely while the other drivers who thought they were in position to win were left stranded. Brad Keselowski spun out of the fourth turn just as Johnson, Kyle Busch and Greg Biffle pitted. It counted as a green flag pit stop because the three drivers had hit pit road before the sixth yellow flag of the race with 26 laps left in the scheduled 250-lap race.

Johnson was able to get off pit road ahead of the leader, Jeff Burton, as the field was frozen. Burton led the race contenders down pit road for their final stop on lap 227 with all drivers in the top 10 pitting for four tires. By the time the pit stops were completed, Johnson was in the lead just ahead of Kevin Harvick, Burton, Mark Martin and Kurt Busch.

"If I had been just a few-tenths faster, I would have put Jimmie a lap down," Burton said afterwards.

Johnson went from the bottom of the top 10 to the lead and scored his first victory of the season, the 48th of his career and fifth at Auto Club Speedway. He finished 1.524-seconds ahead of Harvick's hard-charging Chevrolet. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good, and on Sunday, Johnson was both.

"They are really good but they are really lucky, too," Harvick said. "They have a Golden Horseshoe stuck up their ass."

When told of Harvick's assessment, Johnson could only laugh.

"I have a horseshoe in my ass?" Johnson asked. "Yes, we were lucky today but you don't get lucky to win four championships and 48 races. I had to go out there and hold Kevin off. I'm not discrediting that we were handed a huge gift. It is what it is, but for how consistent we are, it's because we are a good race team."

Ever since joining the Sprint Cup Series in 2002, Johnson has made winning races and championships look easy. With his latest victory, he ties Herb Thomas for 12th on the all-time list and many believe that Johnson's career success is far from over. And while it's undeniable that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are the best in the sport, if a little luck is thrown their way, it's just one more devastating blow to the rest of the field.

"The deal on pit road; there is no way around it," Johnson said. "We were able to beat the 31 car (Burton) where the scoring line is on pit road. We certainly got lucky, but we were running third or fourth at the time, so I didn't back into this by any means."

With so many 1.5-mile and 2-mile tracks on the Sprint Cup schedule, Johnson's emergence in the first race one has to send a signal that he remains the driver to beat for the 2010 title. With the win, he jumped from 35th to 12th in points and, as the series heads to Las Vegas, the odds for another championship are already in his favor.

"We've got a new car going to Las Vegas that's got some new things we're excited about," Knaus said. "Every race is a learning opportunity. If we go away from any race and we don't learn something, it's our own fault."

Call his California win lucky but Johnson, Knaus and the 48 crew know what it takes to capitalize on a great opportunity.

"Not to be corny, but just keep winning," Johnson said is his key to another championship. "It's great to win the big races. I'm here to win races. I love winning races. The only way you win championships is by winning races."

As the series heads to Las Vegas, Johnson already looks like the big winner.

One of the more colorful malaprops in recent NASCAR history came from none other than Ward Burton after he won the Daytona 500 in 2002. With all the appearances and media tours that come from winning NASCAR's biggest race, Burton said he was swept up in a "whirlpool of activity."

Jamie McMurray chuckled when told of Burton's comment, but he certainly can relate. McMurray was still basking in the glow of his Daytona 500 victory when he arrived in California last week. He provided a much-needed distraction from the "Danica Mania" that has steamrolled all things NASCAR since the IZOD IndyCar Series driver climbed into a stock car three weekends ago.

While Patrick is dominating attention from the mainstream media, die-hard race fans and McMurray's fellow competitors have focused on his dramatic victory on February 14.

"I am still blown away by how much attention is placed on the Daytona 500," McMurray said. "It's a dream to win that race. But the amount of media attention that goes along with the Daytona 500, you really can't explain it to anybody."

McMurray wanted to put a spreadsheet together to show what he did during the four days after he won at Daytona because he doesn't believe anyone would understand just how much he was swept away in the whirlpool.

"You get in the car, they drive you to whatever appearance you're doing and you think you're going to rest, and they put a cell phone in your ear and say this is a newspaper or this is a radio station or this is somebody that you don't know," McMurray recalled. "And you talk all the way there and then you get out and you do your appearance and you get back in the car and you get ready to take a break, and they put the cell phone in your ear again.

"No joke, everybody's cell phone in the car was dead at the end of each day. No battery was left in anyone's because we had used them all day long."

Fulfilling media commitments is an obligation that comes with winning the 500. But the warm congratulations from the men he battles on a weekly basis mean the most to McMurray.

"Everybody wants to come up and shake your hand and congratulate you," he recalled. "And that, honestly, is the most enjoyable part of it to me. As I walk through the garage, from both sides, I see people staring at me waiting on me to get to them to shake my hand. And it's just been wonderful. Everyone from the drivers to crew chiefs to the media; even the photographers say 'good job' and 'I'm happy for you', but they want to tell you a five minute story of why they're happy. And I'm glad to listen. It's just been, honestly, the best week of my life."

McMurray wisely picks his wedding day as the best day of his life. That's a smart answer if he wants to keep his lovely wife Christy happy. But as far as professional accomplishments, his Daytona win was the greatest day of his racing career.

"It's great that everyone is being so nice and is treating me with so much respect," McMurray said. "You can't buy that. You can't make people say all those things about you; that's just the way they feel. And it's really incredible. I walked in here today and it's just a different feeling than I've ever had in the garage area."

The Daytona 500 will forever change McMurray's life. It will always stand as the pinnacle of his career. His name will be etched on the Haley Earl Trophy and the checks will be cashed and the money eventually spent. But the feeling that comes with the whirlwind-- or as Ward Burton would call it, the whirlpool -- that McMurray finds priceless.

As NASCAR prepares to replace the rear wing with a more traditional spoiler on the current generation car used in Sprint Cup, teams are already preparing for the change back at the race shops. When asked what the most important thing each team should be focusing on at this early stage in the season, Jeff Burton was direct with his answer.

"Spoilers," he said. "We got to start working on spoilers. That's going to be a big change. Everybody has what they have for the next two weeks. When the spoiler comes, you better be ready. If we get behind, you won't catch up anytime soon. We did that all last year. So that's where I think the whole garage is working right now."

Teams that get a head start on devising chassis setups and aerodynamic numbers on their cars before the spoiler switch goes into effect later this spring will have a huge advantage. But expect to see teams that already dominate the series continue to dominate because money not only buys speed, but research and development.

For the second weekend in a row, Danica Patrick's participation in the Nationwide Series dominated the spotlight. While NASCAR drivers realize how important it is to generate more attention to their sport, they aren't afraid to take a verbal shot at the IZOD IndyCar Series star.

"I walked in here today, looked at the number of cameras and I said, 'Danica Patrick must be here this weekend,'" said four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon. "I look at that as a good thing. She's bringing a lot of attention to the sport and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has that same thing about him."

The irony in all this is that from 2005 through 2009, NASCAR drivers often belittled the IndyCar Series for all the attention and publicity Patrick created. Now that she's running a limited NASCAR schedule, she's turned every day into Ground Hog Day as the media and NASCAR PR machine go "All-Danica, all the time."

"It's just that you guys pestering us about her gets to be too much," Tony Stewart said, referring to the media. "After a while, you wonder how much you can talk about the same topic and we haven't even gotten her to her first regular race and we're still talking about the same stuff. Our opinion about her hasn't changed; I still think she has an extremely high amount of talent. I think that if the media will give her enough room to learn and not bug the daylights out of her where she can't breathe, I think she'll be fine. That opinion from last week to this week, it really hasn't changed."

Patrick has a busy week heading to Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds, Alabama, for the annual preseason IndyCar test. After that event concludes on Thursday, she's off to Las Vegas for Saturday's Nationwide Series race.

Carl Edwards admits every time he hears the cell phone ring, he jumps. That's because his wife, Kate, is expecting the couple's first child "any time now."

"I've been carrying around this Palm Pixie and it's a pretty neat phone," Edwards said. "I've been just waiting for Kate to call me. I've got fuel in the plane and I'm ready to go if she were to call this evening. I'd take off and go see it, but we went to the doctor this week and they said everything just looks the same, so I guess we're just kind of hanging out. We've been doing lots of walking and ate some spicy foods -- everything they say to do -- so we're just waiting. I'm really excited about it."

As of Monday, the baby watch continues.

"I can't build the cars. What do you want me to do? I just drive them." -- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. after resorting to mid-season form with a 32nd-place finish at California.

"Global warming. It was too cold." -- Winning crew chief Chad Knaus on why the crowd at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana was so small last weekend.

"She didn't tell me that I couldn't take my shirt off." -- Mark Martin, referring to his wife, Arlene, as the 51-year-old driver prepares for his first commercial.

When I was a student at Indiana University, I never looked forward to tests. In fact, an old professor at the Ernie Pyle School of Journalism contends that I still owe him a half-semester's worth of work. But I'm actually looking forward to a test this week -- the annual preseason test for the IZOD IndyCar Series. It's a chance to check in with the IndyCar drivers, including Danica Patrick, who will be back in the car that fits her best -- the Andretti Autosport IndyCar.

The test will be held at Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds, Alabama, and that means another trip to the original Dreamland Barbecue in Tuscaloosa.

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