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JJ’s Kryptonite?

Posted by Digory Kirke on August 8, 2009

Come to think of it, Jimmie Johnson does share some physical similarities with the man in cape.

Thinking on it, Johnson does share some physical similarities with the man in cape.

Three-time Sprint Cup champion. Three-time Brickyard winner. Daytona 500 winner. There’s not a lot missing from Jimmie Johnson’s résumé. Except a road course win.

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — … but he’s never won on a road course.

That’s the empty end phrase on Jimmie Johnson‘s Cup résumé, after the three straight championships, the most wins (43) of anyone since he’s been at this level, the Daytona 500 win, the top five in points every season, etc. …

His credentials are so hefty that since Mark Martin started calling him Superman a couple of weeks ago after Johnson won his third Allstate 400 at the Brickyard in four years, the nickname is showing signs of sticking.

And, “he doesn’t have to win a road course to continue to be Superman in my book,” Martin said Friday, just before practice began for Sunday’s Heluva Good at the Glen road race.

Well, Martin’s got his book, and I’ve got mine.

In every Superman movie I’ve seen, he’s been able to turn right as well as left in flight.

Not that Johnson can’t. He led 17 laps here last year before falling back with a flat tire. He’s on the pole for Sunday with a qualifying speed of 123.633 mph on Friday. His peers say he’s quite a road racer, for whom the breaks just haven’t fallen right.

But until and unless they do … well … I’ll gladly acknowledge that Johnson is the top NASCAR driver of his time, but I won’t join the Superman cult.

Not that road racing is anywhere near the point of the NASCAR exercise. But it is one small element to be mastered if a driver is to be deemed fully a maestro.

Think about it: The others who arguably qualify as NASCAR’s most talented — Jeff GordonTony Stewart, even Kyle Busch — all have won multiple road races.

Stewart doesn’t think it matters much. “I think three championships are enough to overcome not having won on a road course,” he said.

But, Stewart acknowledged, “There’s a lot of pride amongst the drivers in being able to win at every discipline, and win at every racetrack. So I’m sure that’s something that’s high on his priority list.”

It is. In fact, Johnson even said Friday that he’d rather win here than the half-mile oval at Bristol, Tenn., that has notoriously given him fits.

And no one is more baffled than Johnson at his lack of serpentine success.

“I don’t feel like I need it to complete my résumé,” he said Friday. But, “It’s been shocking to me.” He meant on a recurring basis, since he arrived at Cup level in 2002, considering his background in off-road racing, which usually is excellent preparation for NASCAR road racing — witness Robby Gordon‘s success.

“It’s been kind of that weird thing for me, and I don’t understand it,” Johnson said. “Certainly in other vehicles — in a Grand Am [prototype] car, I’ve been extremely fast in wet conditions.

“So I don’t know what it is about this Cup car that I’ve had troubles with.”

But, “I think we’re getting closer and closer, and I’m hopeful that it’s this weekend. At Sonoma [in June] we overcame a lot and finished fourth, and left extremely optimistic for this race.

“Last year we were really fast here, had a cut tire and had to come back from pitting under green [to finish seventh],” he said.

Said Boris Said, the ESPN analyst and part-time NASCAR driver who is guru and teacher of road racing to most Cup drivers, “I don’t think it’s if he’s going to win a road race, it’s just when, and how many.”

Martin, the preeminent road racer in NASCAR in the early ’90s, agreed that for Johnson, “it’s one of those matter-of-time deals.”

“I usually am a slow learner, but once I pick up something I own it,” Johnson said, “and I don’t let go of it … when I figure out how to really get around this place I’m sure I’ll be on it and do well with it.”

Tasmanian Marcos Ambrose and Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya, NASCAR’s two road racers since childhood, figure Johnson already has the technique.

“I was shocked when I learnt that Jimmie hasn’t won on a road course,” Ambrose said. “He’s as good as anybody. I follow him and he races me hard, and if I’m looking at the list on any week at a road course of who’s a threat to win, Jimmie’s on my list. So I’m surprised he hasn’t managed to close the deal. But he’s very talented.”

“He seems to be doing always a good job on road courses,” Montoya said. “Last year at Sonoma he was really fast.”

“I know he’s worked really hard at it,” said Johnson teammate Jeff Gordon, NASCAR’s all-time best road racer with nine wins. “And that’s what makes a good road course driver, is somebody who’s challenged by it and enjoys that challenge and goes after it. And he certainly has.”

Johnson’s lack of success might lie with a weak point in otherwise mighty Hendrick Motorsports, Gordon suggested.

“Other than maybe the first couple of years he was at Hendrick, I’m not so sure we’ve had the best package out there on the road courses the last three or four years,” Gordon said. “When I was winning all of our road races, I felt like we did have the best package, and I did my part.

“So I think if we step up our package a little bit — and hopefully that can happen this weekend — I think that Jimmie can definitely challenge for a win.”

And then …

… he’ll have won on a road course.

Résumé complete for Superman.

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