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May 3 2011

9:55 PM

Johnson wants to stay inside ropes

By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jimmie Johnson is bidding for an unprecedented sixth consecutive Sprint Cup championship. His goals at Quail Hollow on Wednesday are much more modest, though.

"I just hope to keep it between the galleries tomorrow and just keep it out there," Johnson said. "It doesn't have to be in the short stuff but just somewhere between would be nice."

Johnson is playing in the Wells Fargo Championship pro-am for the fifth time on Wednesday. Another NASCAR driver, Denny Hamlin, was on the winning team in Monday's festivites so Johnson needs a good day to regain bragging rights -- at least on the golf course.

The race track, where Johnson has won 54 times, is another story. His first challenge, though? "I turn left for a living, and for some reason my golf ball goes right all the time," Johnson said with a chuckle.

Johnson said he carries a 21 handicap right now -- "I had to swallow before I said it," he said with a grin. But the birth of his first child, a daughter named Genevieve, last July has curtailed Johnson's usual Monday rounds of golf with his buddies.

"For me, things have changed so much since becoming a father, and I hate to admit it, but tomorrow will be my second round of golf this year," Johnson said. "I think I sent out a Tweet a week or so ago about wearing headgear and shin guards, and I wasn't lying.  There's a chance I could spray it a little bit. 

"I played the one round, and it went well, better than I expected. I'll have fun with it tomorrow. I don't play as much as I would like to, and with our busy race schedule as you know, and then being a father, to sneak out for four or five hours of golf, it's just tough to find that time anymore."

Johnson won the pro-am several years ago when he played with Anthony Kim -- "It's the only golfing trophy I have and probably the only one I'll ever have," he said. Even so, Johnson, who now lives in Charlotte, not far from Quail Hollow, knows he'll be nervous on the first tee.

"I've found that the first three or four holes are really the most difficult," he said. "And then you kind of start breathing again and relax and get into the swing of things. But that first tee box is as fearful as anyone has ever mentioned; all the people standing around, your friends remind you of bad shots people have made there.

"My first year with Darren Clarke and Casey Mears, luckily Casey's was so much worse than mine, mine was 80 yards, his went like 20 yards that people really forgot about my shot. It is nerve-wracking on that first tee box."

Fear, though, isn't always such a bad thing. At least, when Johnson settles in behind the wheel of the Lowe's Chevrolet.

"Within racing I find that I'm really motivated by fear inside the car, and if you lose a respect for how fast we're going at the tracks and what we're doing, not only can you put yourself in harm's way but I think you start over driving the vehicle and not doing things that will lead to race wins and championships," he said.

"So fear is something I think most professional athletes have to deal with and learn to live with.  I know there are a lot of sports psychologists that try to push it out of your mind, but when I've done that I've ignored important steps along the way, and I've let fear and even failure be a big part of my mindset as I race to help me stay out of trouble and do the right things."

After five Sprint Cup championships, Johnson is certainly doing something right.

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