NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series points leader Jimmie Johnson began early preparations for the season-ending 10-race "Chase for the NEXTEL Cup" with a one-day test at Kentucky Speedway today.

The 29-year-old driver will return to the site of his third win of the season this Sunday in Pocono, Pa., holding a 165-point advantage over the second-place Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Johnson ended a string of five straight top-five finishes, that included his June win at Pocono and second-place performances at Daytona Beach, Fla., and Joliet, Ill., with an 11th-place showing in New Hampshire last Sunday.

He plans to use his points cushion and the information he gained in his last Pocono test to return to the top-10 this weekend.

"In some ways the lead cuts you some slack, in other ways it lets you take some chances, it depends on how the race was unfolding for you," Johnson said. "Last weekend was a bad weekend for us, we still had an 11th place finish, but it wasn't what we expected to have going back to New Hampshire.

"Even though we gained some points in the grand scheme of things, we lost some points to the (No.) 24. It really doesn't matter with the points system in place. We're able to let that go a little easier. In that case, you're relaxed. In other cases, if it's a white-flag lap and you need to make a gutsy move to win the race, you can do that because you just need to be in that final 10 (at Race 27). So far, I've only been able to use the lead to shrug off a bad performance. I'm hoping that I'm able to get in there and mix it up and take some chances for a win.

"We had a great performance at Pocono last time. Even with the error from NASCAR, with almost losing the race because of the pitting deal, we were able to come back and win. We went up there and tested since then, so we'll have a little different package. We had some disparity, we were half a second faster than those guys, so hopefully we go back and have the same speed."

Johnson, who has completed more than 94 percent of all NNCS race laps this season, said the consistency that has led to his 13 top-five and 14 top-10 finishes is the product of a synergy between his driving style and the entire Hendrick Racing program. "It's really a whole team effort that puts it all in place," he said. "They give me great race cars that I'm able to drive and that obviously have the speed. Coming out of the same shop as the (No.) 24, the cars are always fast, so, out of the box, I'm in great equipment.

"I've always been able to points race well, make the right decisions and finish races. That' s just been my style. Over time, we keep clicking away good finishes, good solid performances and we end up in a very safe situation in points. I think it's a combination of good equipment and my style producing results over a long season than anything."

With seven races remaining until "The Chase for the NEXTEL Cup," Johnson and No. 48 Lowe's team have adopted a wait-and-see approach to the next several races.

"We all knew going into the season that it wouldn't do you a lot of good to have a big points lead at Race 27. It looks like we're in a good situation to where we have something to complain about and hopefully we have a big points lead that's going to disappear.

"In my heart I feel that the champion should be based on the full season, not a 10-race stretch, but that's how it is. We can't sit here and complain about it, we've got to get to work to try to win the championship regardless of how it is. I think we're in great shape, but if we do have a big points lead and it's erased, it's going to make for a lot of press and a lot of good questions at the end of the year. "I think I'll start off with the same temperament that I have now and see where we fall into place. If we're able to come out winning and get a good handle on the points, we'll probably take a more conservative route. If we come out and our normal game isn't enough, we're going to have to dig deep and really start trying hard. At this point it's still hard to tell. When we get three or four races out, I think everybody will have a good idea of how that final 10 is going to play out. Things change so fast in our sport and to be the team to beat for a two month period of time is pretty tough. We still have some time and hopefully we'll have this Lowe's team peaking right when we need it to."

~ Kentucky Speedway ~