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Pocono pits Johnson, Newman in rubber match

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LONG POND, Pa. -- Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson have come a long way since 2002.

That was the season they took NASCAR's premier division by storm, combining to win four times and battling for top rookie honors in a campaign that saw Newman prevail in a panel of voters. Since then Newman has gone on to a steady and successful career that's seen him net 17 race victories, while Johnson has gone on to a spectacular one that's seen him secure five championships and a place among the sport's all-time greats.

These days, they're in very different places -- Johnson holds a 75-point lead over the competition in his bid for a sixth title, while Newman is trying to shore up both a berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup and a ride for next year. And yet in some ways it feels a little like 2002 again, given how these two old rivals have suddenly found themselves battling head-to-head with regularity.

That was certainly the case two months ago during the most recent Sprint Cup event at Pocono Raceway, where Johnson and Newman were the only two drivers to lead double-digit laps on the 2.5-mile layout. Johnson led 128 en route to a dominant victory, while Newman used pit strategy to pace 19 and earn his first top-five of the season. The tables were turned last week at Indianapolis, when Newman edged Johnson in pole qualifying with a track-record lap, and then used a late two-tire stop to outrun the five-time champion for a victory at the Brickyard.

And now it's back to Pocono (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN), where the triangular track may very well pit Johnson and Newman against one another yet again. It's perhaps no coincidence that the drivers' last two showdowns have come at Pocono and Indy, two venues that bear plenty of similarities to one another -- a corner at Pocono is even modeled after one at the Brickyard -- and where performance often translates.

"I think it helps, no doubt. I think the tracks are closer than they have ever been basically on the premise of grip and ride quality. But it doesn't mean that it's going to happen," Newman said. "We can mess it up way easier than we can make it right when it comes to the car and the chassis, and everything else. But yes, based on our experience in the first race and carrying that same car and information over to Indianapolis, it has great potential for this weekend, and that is why I am looking forward to it."

The link between the two tracks was further strengthened by a resurfacing of the Pennsylvania facility last year.

"It's more translatable since they've paved this track," veteran Sprint Cup driver Jeff Burton said. "I never understood how Indy had anything to do with Pocono when this track was as rough as it was and this track had zero grip compared to Indy. Now that this track was paved, there are some similarities in the sense that you have long straightaways."

"It's all about aerodynamics, that's what it boils down to. How you can get your car to sit down the straightaways verses the way it sits in the corners. Because you have long straightaways at both race tracks and both race tracks are smooth, both race tracks have limited banking, that opens the door to similar philosophies from one race track to the next. That's really what it boils down to -- banking, smoothness, grip level. Those kinds of things are what make the track. So you can use a basic philosophy from one race track to the next."

No wonder, then, Newman and Johnson are both optimistic about Sunday's event in the Poconos. Newman is using the same chassis he drove to both a fifth-place result here in June, as well as his victory a week ago at the Brickyard. Johnson used his race-winning car from the most recent Pocono race last Sunday at Indianapolis, but isn't driving it this weekend because his team couldn't turn it around in time. Instead he's using his primary chassis from Kentucky, where Johnson led 182 laps and finished ninth after having an issue on a late restart.

And yet Johnson believes the Generation-6 car rolled out for this season is more easily adaptable to individual tracks, making up for the fact he won't be driving the same vehicle he used in June at Pocono.

"We would have loved to have brought that race car here," he said. "We feel like in today's world in the rules and the templates and everything it takes to bring a race car to the track today, it's much easier to repeat and bring a car as good if not better than five, six years ago, especially the Gen-4 race car. It was very tough to repeat with those cars. We definitely did have a favorite there. Anymore, I can't tell the difference. I know that we have our latest package on this car and it shouldn't be a lot different than what we had before."

Johnson, who has three career wins at Pocono, is aiming for the first season sweep at the track since Denny Hamlin did it in 2006. Toward that end, the proximity between the facility's two races on the calendar certainly helps.

"There is not a lot of change between the first race and the second race," he said.

Newman, meanwhile, is looking to become the first driver to win Indy and Pocono back-to-back since Bill Elliott did it in 2001, though in the opposite order since the two races were flipped on the schedule at the time.

"There are no guarantees, but it's the same race car, and I feel like we have been able to sharpen up some of the things that we did in the June race here," Newman said. "We have done a lot of testing since then, and obviously a lot of racing, and the Indianapolis race was huge. So hopefully we can make it happen, but like I said, there are no guarantees. It is probably the closest back-to-back races that we have in the season that are somewhat similar on the set-up side."

That much seemed evident in qualifying, where Johnson won the pole with a track-record speed and Newman took fourth. A victory Sunday would give Johnson his second career Pocono sweep, replicating that feat from 2004, and his second season sweep of a race track this year -- he also became the first driver in over three decades to claim both yearly events at Daytona.

"I've personally enjoyed sweeps," Johnson said. "They have meant a lot to me, and I'm happy that I have one this year.  It would be awesome to have two sweeps in a year if that is possible this weekend."

 

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