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Road-course victory still tops Johnson’s to-do list

Posted by Digory Kirke on August 8, 2009

Driver 0-for-15 in his career surprising others in garage

48 COT @ Watkins Gleen 2009

When Jimmie Johnson first arrived in NASCAR eight years ago, he figured road courses would be one of the smoother parts of his transition. Growing up in Southern California, he had excelled at making both left and right turns, winning a trophy case full of championships in motorcycles and off-road vehicles long before he gravitated to stock cars. That background, he figured, would make him a natural at places like Watkins Glen International.

And yet, here is Johnson, with three championships and 43 race wins on NASCAR’s premier series, and still searching for his first victory on a road course. He’s zero-for-eight at Infineon Raceway, and zero-for-seven at Watkins Glen entering Sunday’s Cup event on the 2.45-mile layout. It’s a notable omission for a driver who’s seemed to have won everything else during his tenure in NASCAR thus far.

“I was shocked when I learned that Jimmie hasn’t won on a road course, because he’s as good as anybody,” said former road-course ace Marcos Ambrose, who now races the full Cup schedule for JTG Daugherty Racing. “I’ve followed him, and he races me hard, and if I’m looking at the list on any week at a road course race of who’s expected to win, Jimmie’s on my list. So I’m surprised that he hasn’t managed to close the deal.”

Even Johnson — who’s been competitive in two starts in the 24 Hours of Daytona sports-car event, and won a road race at the Race of Champions in 2002 — struggles to comprehend it.

“It’s been kind of a weird thing for me, and I don’t understand it,” he said. “Certainly, I hopped in other vehicles. I hop in a Grand Am car and am on pace with my teammates that are extremely fast and won a championship. So I don’t know what it is about the Cup car that I’ve had some troubles with. But I am getting closer, and I think more seat time is helpful. I usually am a slow learner, but once I get something, I own it and I don’t let go of it. I feel like I’m chipping away at it.”

He’s come close — Johnson finished third at Watkins Glen two years ago, and might have won here last season had he not suffered a cut tire and been forced to make a pit stop that placed him at the rear of the field. His fourth-place result at Infineon earlier this year was a career-best at the Northern California track. His peers see an eventual trip to Victory Lane as an inevitability.

“He’s the guy I just called Superman,” said Mark Martin, Johnson’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, referring to comments he made at Pocono Raceway last week. “I don’t think he needs a road-course win to continue to be Superman in my book. He’s fast. He’s fast on a road course. But that’s OK, we’ll push him anyway. I think he’s very competitive, and it’s one of those matter-of-time deals. Everything has to line up just right.”

“I’m sure, in his mind, he’s won at everything, but he hasn’t won a road race. I think that’s probably on his bucket list, and he wants to tick it off,” added road-course ace Boris Said. “His teammate [Jeff Gordon] is one of the best in the business, so I’m sure he gets a lot of advice from him. And just by the fact of how he ran at Sonoma, I think he’s getting better and better. I don’t think it’s if he’s going to win a road race, it’s just when and how many.”

Gordon is indeed the most successful road-course racer at NASCAR’s premier level, with a record nine career victories on the serpentine tracks. Yet even Gordon hasn’t won at Watkins Glen in seven long years, and he concedes that Hendrick’s road-course package hasn’t exactly been the best during that span — perhaps one reason that Johnson has come up short on road courses to this point.

“I’m sure in his mind, he’d like to add [a road-course victory] to his resume. I know he’s worked really hard at it. That’s what makes a good road-course driver, someone who’s challenged by it, and enjoys that challenge and goes after it. He certainly has,” Gordon said. “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. And when I won, when we were winning all our road-course races, I felt like we had the best road course package, and I did my part. I think if we step up our package a little bit, and hopefully that will happen this weekend, I think Jimmie can definitely challenge for a win.”

No one seems to think that the lack of a road-course victory somehow renders Johnson’s illustrious career incomplete. But Johnson clearly places an emphasis on getting that first road-course victory, to the point where it’s on his short list of things to accomplish at the beginning of every season.

“Truthfully, it’s been on my list far before winning a Cup championship,” he said. “I was just able to get the championship stuff done before getting a road-course win. I had no idea that this type of success would come and I would be experiencing stuff at the championship level. So, there were a lot of other steps and goals on my sheet before a championship, but I was very fortunate to get those first. Winning championships is what the season is based on and what the ultimate goal is, but when I look at the little battles through the course of the year, a road course is at the top of that list right now.”

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