Wheeler says Johnson's man to beat in All-Star Challenge

Associated Press • May 15, 2007 at 11:09 AM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Seconds after closing a large box containing Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 car, a magician did what fellow Nextel Cup drivers could only dream about: He made it disappear.

But if Lowe's Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler is right, Johnson will continue to frustrate competitors and be $1 million richer Saturday by repeating as winner of the Nextel All-Star Challenge.

"He's going to be strong and it's his race to lose right now," Wheeler said Tuesday in his carnival-barker style while making his annual prediction with an assist from an illusionist.

Johnson has won a Nextel Cup-best four races this year and five of the past nine at Lowe's Motor Speedway. Johnson's team, Hendrick Motorsports, has won four straight races and eight of nine.

A win Saturday would give Johnson three All-Star victories, tying him with teammate Jeff Gordon and the late Dale Earnhardt.

"He's got his act together. He could win eight races this year or more," Wheeler said. "He's in a sweet spot in time and he's going to continue to be successful.

"I think the Hendrick cars have just a tad more torque coming out of the corners," he added.

Wheeler picked six of seven winners from 1989-95, but has been right only twice since. He correctly picked Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2000 and Johnson in 2003.

Wheeler decided to go with Johnson again because of his skill driving loose cars and after watching him test last week at the track.

"The big thing was backstretch speeds, how fast they were coming off the second turn and going into third, and Jimmie Johnson was just flying," Wheeler said. "He was the fastest car there."

Saturday's All-Star race will include four 20-lap segments. Unlike recent years, the field will not be inverted. Those not already eligible for the race can qualify by winning the 40-lap Nextel Open. Wheeler thinks Juan Pablo Montoya, in his first season driving stock cars after moving from Formula One, will edge Carl Edwards.

"He's adjusted to these stock cars faster than any open-wheel driver except maybe Mario Andretti or A.J. Foyt," Wheeler said.

Two-time winner Mark Martin is Wheeler's dark horse for the All-Star race. Running a limited schedule for new owner Bobby Ginn, Martin has five top-10 finishes in 11 races.

Wheeler also thinks Dale Earnhardt Inc. will finally have reason to smile less than a week after Earnhardt Jr. announced he'll leave the team after the season. Wheeler picked Martin Truex Jr.'s team to repeat today as winner of the pit crew challenge. The winner will be able to select the pit box location for the All-Star race. "We prefer to stay under the radar, but this will make it a lot more intense for them," DEI pit crew coordinator Walt Smith said. "The heat will be on."

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