Johnson Heading Home

At the very least, Sunday's Auto Club 500 should be a few notches down on the intensity level from last week's Daytona 500.

Sure everyone will be trying to win NASCAR's second race of the NEXTEL Cup season, but the pressure of competing in the biggest race of the season will be just a memory.

"I think it's a couple of things," said Jimmie Johnson, who came home fifth at Daytona. "It's the Daytona 500 so that's very intense at the finish. Every spot is worth a lot of money and bragging rights.

Also the type of racing that goes on in restrictor plate racing is so different than what we're used to. It's frustrating to look in your mirror 80 percent of the time and out the windshield 20 percent of the time and have to worry about blocking and doing all the things we do on a plate track. That builds in frustration as well."

So with the Daytona pressure cooker behind, Johnson brings an extra dose of confidence with him to California, where he scored his first career NEXTEL Cup Series win in 2002.

"We had a great test in Fontana and also Las Vegas," he said. "We're really excited about the start of the season. We knew we were going to have a good car at Daytona and then going to California and then Las Vegas."

But this weekend throws a different wrinkle into the NEXTEL Cup garage as NASCAR's new spoiler rule and softer tires go into effect along with the change of impounding the cars after qualifying, thus eliminating a final practice session.

"We've got to play the new element with the impounding in California and that's something new for all the teams," he said. "When it comes time to race, I'll feel very confident and strong. I'd love to win again in my home state," the native Californian said.

Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus is doing his best to figure out how exactrly the new rules and procedures will play out.

"It's going to be something new for us that we're going to have to try to overcome," Knaus said. "The guys who have an advantage in this procedure are the crew chiefs who actually ran the Busch Series because they've done that a lot more in that series. And I've never worked in the Busch Series, so I don't know too much about it."

With so many unknowns, there will no doubt be plenty of nervous crew chiefs and drivers walking around the garage area this weekend.

Come to think about it, maybe the intensity level won't be much lower than Daytona.

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