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Weekend Preview: Jimmie Johnson – surprise – looks like a title contender again

 Staff Report

NASCAR Wire Service

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – Well, that didn’t take long.

Jimmie Johnson has enjoyed a dramatic reversal of fortune, a two-week winning streak after starting the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season 0-for-11. Inevitably, this has people rethinking the 2014 season, now that Johnson has redefined it.

The champ is back.

Victories the last two weeks at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway – the former event being one of NASCAR’s “majors,” the Coca-Cola 600 – has Johnson looking completely capable of winning a record-tying seventh series championship. And he is teed up nicely for a possible third consecutive victory, as the defending race winner for Sunday’s race, the Pocono 400.

Pocono Raceway – a 2.5-mile race track with only three turns and virtually no banking – is called the “Tricky Triangle” but Johnson never has found it all that puzzling. In addition to his June 2013 win, he swept the track’s two races in 2004, his third full-time season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series – an early inkling of the dominance that was coming down the pike. Overall at Pocono, Johnson’s average finish is 8.8 and his Driving Rating is 109.3. Both of those statistics, based on 24 starts, are series-bests.

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There are three two-time winners in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series thus far this year – Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano. This is certainly what could be called “preferred status” as all three have almost certainly clinched spots in the 16-driver Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, NASCAR’s ‘playoffs” that are contested over the final 10 races of the season.

Those three still must fulfill two more requirements, however, to make the Chase. They must finish the first 26 races of the season in the top 30 of the series points. Sixteen spots are available for the Chase, with race winners getting first dibs, provided they fulfill all the qualification requirements. If there are less than 16 different winners, remaining berths will be based on the series standings after the first 26 races.

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The NASCAR Nationwide Series is off this week, slated for a June 14 return at Michigan International Speedway. Regan Smith leads the series championship standings with Elliott Sadler a mere four points back. In third, you’ll find the star of the series this season, rookie Chase Elliot, winner of two races and many fans.

Elliott, son of NASCAR legend and recently announced 2015 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Bill Elliott, is part of a stellar Sunoco Rookie of the Year competition in the series that includes Ty Dillon and Chris Buescher.

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The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races at Texas Motor Speedway Friday night in the WinStar World Casino & Resort 400, with a couple of unique storylines developing.

Joe Nemechek and his son John Hunter, continuing to share a full-time ride in the series, are racing with special motivation this weekend.  Joe Nemechek co-owns the SWM-NEMCO Motorsports truck team with Texas native Sid Mauldin, who is battling cancer and is receiving treatment at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. The Nemecheks have had the logo on their truck recently.

And then, there’s the hard choice Erik Jones had to make coming into the Texas event. Jones will miss his high school graduation on Friday to drive the No. 51 Toyota Tundra for truck owner Kyle Busch. Jones became the youngest race winner in series history (17 year, five months, eight days) last November at Phoenix, also driving the No. 51.