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Posts Tagged ‘Jimmie Johnson’

Is Jimmie Johnson’s pole at The Glen enough to satisfy you?

Posted by Digory Kirke on August 9, 2009

OK, so Jimmie Johnson doesn’t have a road-course victory on his resume yet – a fact which he was reminded of several times Friday at Watkins Glen.

But he does have a road-course pole to his credit now, after his fast lap on a pleasant New York afternoon edged out Kurt Busch for the top spot.

Maybe that will do something to quiet those who believe Johnson’s resume is incomplete without a road-course win. It’s a bit ridiculous, if you ask me.

People are still waiting for Johnson to win at a non-oval track (even more than a place like Bristol, for instance) because they view it as the truest test of driver ability. But while road-courses are definitely a great tribute to driver talent, so are three straight Cup championships.

Actually, I’d take the three titles over a road-course win – wouldn’t you?

Rest assured, Johnson said a road-course victory is now at the top of his list. And he’ll get there. (Which means all of you are now in trouble for opening your mouths about this. When Team 48 concentrates on something like this, it is in the bag it will eventually happen)

“It’s just taken me a long time – we only do it twice a year – to figure it out,” Johnson said.

In reality, Johnson doesn’t need a road-course victory to prove anything. Actually, he has nothing left to prove.

But for those looking for some greater proof of Johnson’s talent (again, silly given his accomplishments), how about Friday’s pole?

Think about it: There’s no other place where the driver has more to do with winning the pole. Superspeedway poles are almost 100 percent about the car and intermediate tracks are perhaps 75-25 car/driver.

Road-course poles are one lap, one shot at coming the closest to a perfect lap when everyone is trying their hardest.

The winner of that little contest on Friday was Johnson. Satisfied yet?

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Johnson’s Pocono finish may be telling

Posted by Digory Kirke on August 8, 2009

It’s days like Monday afternoon at Pocono that prove Jimmie Johnsoncan win an unprecedented fourth consecutive Sprint Cup title.

Johnson was three laps down late in the race. He was 36th with 40 laps to go and 34th with 30 laps left. He had an engine problem the team couldn’t figure out.

And after all that, Johnson finished 13th in the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500, an astonishing comeback to make a respectable showing off a horrible situation.

That’s how you win championships.

“For us to salvage a 13th-place finish means a lot to me,” Johnson said. “I think we are going in the right direction. It shows me what my team is capable of and what I’m capable of going into the Chase.”

It took some time for crew chief Chad Knaus to figure out what was wrong with the No. 48 car at Pocono, but they did figure it out.

It took some time for crew chief Chad Knaus to figure out what was wrong with the No. 48 car at Pocono, but they did figure it out.

Johnson ran first or second in the first 100 laps of the 200-lap event before his engine started to sputter. He didn’t know what was wrong.

“OK buddy, check your switches,” crew chief Chad Knaus said calmly over the radio.

No help. Johnson had to pit. The 48 Chevy team lifted the hood, looking for a loose spark plug wire. No luck.

Johnson went back out and tried to stay on the lead lap until he could pit under caution, but Kasey Kahne quickly put Johnson a lap down.

The crew still was searching for answers. Johnson came in again and they changed the carburetor. Didn’t work. Another caution flew and they changed some of the spark plugs.

Bingo.

“After that, it ran,” Johnson said. “I knew we were about out of stuff to try. We lost another lap because it’s a time-consuming process and we could only get to a few [plugs]. I was hoping the problem was in one of the few we were able to reach. Luckily, it was.”

Five cautions in the last 50 laps enabled Johnson to get back on the lead lap with the lucky dog rule, but he raced his way past a gaggle of cars at the end.

Johnson was 25th on the final restart with 13 laps to go. His finish enabled Johnson to remain second in the Cup standings, 197 points behind leader Tony Stewart and two points ahead of teammate Jeff Gordon.

Speaking of making the most out of a bad day, Stewart finished 10th after starting in the back in his backup car. He was 28th after 80 laps.

“We were just really loose at the beginning,” Stewart said. “It was going to take big steps to fix. We finally just made a huge change and we got it closer, but we never got it right. We made the best of a bad situation.”

A good lesson for everyone with championship hopes.

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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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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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Johnson wins first road course pole at The Glen

Posted by Digory Kirke on August 8, 2009

JJ pole win Watkins Gleen 2009 Jimmie Johnson hasn’t won a Cup race on a road course, but now he has a leg up on that accomplishment.

Johnson turned a lap of 71.340 seconds (123.633 mph) Friday at 2.45-mile Watkins Glen International to win the pole for Sunday’s Heluva Good! at The Glen, edging Kurt Busch (123.619 mph) for the top starting spot by .008 seconds.

The pole was Johnson’s first of the season and the 20th of his career but his first on a road course.Denny Hamlin (123.093 mph) qualified third, followed by road-course ace Marcos Ambrose(123.045 mph) and David Stremme (122.824 mph), Busch’s teammate at Penkse Racing.

Ryan NewmanGreg BiffleKyle Busch, road-course specialist Boris Said and Juan Montoya will take the green flag in positions six through 10, respectively. Casey Mears rolls off 11th besideKasey Kahne, a winner earlier this year at Infineon Raceway, who posted the 12th-fastest time. Series points leader Tony Stewart qualified 13th.

Johnson didn’t put down a perfect lap, but it was fast enough.

“It was a really cool day for us, to get the pole,” Johnson said. “We were close at Sonoma once or twice and lost it by small margins. But to get it done, hopefully, shows the progress that I’m making and the team is making on road courses.

“[Friday] was just one lap, and there’s a lot of laps to be made and a lot of racing on Sunday, but hopefully this is a sign of good things to come for us.”

After watching Hamlin run .256 seconds slower than his fastest practice time, Kurt Busch decided to take a conservative approach.

“When I saw that Denny Hamlin run a (71.65), I thought that that dropped off a bunch from his pace in practice, so that gave me the conservative mindset, and I just got beat flat out in the braking zones.

“Yeah, it’s tough to lose by eight thousandths, but it’s a front-row starting spot, and the big prize is on Sunday.”

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Not even adversity stops Johnson

Posted by Digory Kirke on August 6, 2009

The Pennsylvania 500 separated the Chasers from the boys.

With time running out to squeeze in one of just 12 positions, Denny Hamlin, Juan Pablo Montoya and Kasey Kahne showed they didn’t want to be left behind when the Sprint Cup Series postseason begins five races from now.

Hamlin won Monday, Montoya and Kahne finished second and fifth, respectively, but it was three-time champion Jimmie Johnson who proved he was primed for defending his title after coming from three laps down to finish 13th and maintain second-place in the point standings, two markers ahead of his teammate Jeff Gordon and 197 points behind leader Tony Stewart.

If Johnson was nervous when a spark plug failed on Lap 105, he didn’t show it. Johnson stayed as calm behind the wheel as if he was lounging poolside with a cold one in his hand. Johnson’s composure remained intact as he carefully described the power draining from the No. 48 Chevrolet after he had led 22 laps early in the race.

Methodically, the team ran down the checklist of gremlins to address. After multiple pit stops, Johnson fell to 38th, three laps off the lead, on Lap 111 of 200. But he never wavered. Even as crew chief Chad Knaus became testy as NASCAR threatened to black-flag his driver for running under the minimum speed limit, Johnson never lost sight of the finish.

And luck was on Johnson’s side as multiple cautions allowed him to continue to pit for adjustments and regain laps through the free-pass rule. After the 10th caution on Lap 180, which was triggered when David Ragan ran into Bobby Labonte, Johnson was mired at 29th but on the lead lap. It took just 10 laps for him to climb 16 positions. Had Johnson not slipped into the Turn 2 wall with five laps to go, he believes he would have posted his 15th top 10 of the season.

Once again, Johnson salvaged what could have been a disastrous finish. Despite finishing 13th, he said his team’s effort “means a lot” to him.

“When we leave here and the dust settles, there’s a lot to be proud of,” Johnson said. “What I was hoping to see from the No. 48 team is coming around right now. This is what we need going into the Chase.

“I think we are going in the right direction and it shows to me what my team is capable of and I know what I’m capable of going into the Chase. Just a lot of fight in this race team. I’m very proud of them.”

Game changer

Denny Hamlin’s crew chief Mike Ford’s decision to take four tires on the last pit stop after the No. 11 Toyota slipped back on two tires made the difference Monday at Pocono Raceway.

Even when he was in sixth place with 15 laps to go, Hamlin predicted that he would win his third Pocono race. Sure enough, Hamlin passed race leader Clint Bowyer with 10 laps remaining and was then able to extend his lead as the cars behind him jockeyed for position.

Certainly, without a Hendrick-powered car running among the top five at the time, Hamlin knew he had an opportunity to display the gains Joe Gibbs Racing has made in the last six races.

“This is what we didn’t get to show last week at the Brickyard, what we didn’t get to show the first lap here in the summer race in June,” Hamlin said. “I think our race team has been really good the last couple months. I feel like we’ve been the closest car to Hendricks.

“I feel like we’re the best car other than the Hendrick cars. We’ve slowly but surely been working on it in the race shop and on pit road. We’ve been getting there slowly but surely.”

Hamlin’s first victory of the season broke a 50-race winless streak and enabled him to swap positions in the point standings with Carl Edwards again, to take over fifth place. He is currently 475 points out of first place and 251 points within the Chase Zone.

Say what?

Race winner Denny Hamlin made no excuses for dumping David Reutimann on Lap 174 when the No. 00 was running eighth. Hamlin, on fresh tires, obviously wanted the position.

“I was driving over my head, I had so many emotions,” Hamlin said in the postrace broadcast. “The race was halfway on my mind with the family stuff that’s going on … I tried to push him hoping he would straighten up. I kept foot in it and spun him out and ended up hurtin his Chase chances. I hate that.

Reutimann entered Pocono 13th in the point standings, just 68 points outside the top 12. If Reutimann was dreading Watkins Glen before Pocono, now that he’s dropped to 16th in the standings, 121 points out of the Chase, the No. 00 Toyota is in a world of hurt.

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Rain delays Monday’s White House event for NASCAR

Posted by Digory Kirke on August 4, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) – The White House meeting between No. 44 and No. 48 will have to wait a few weeks, thanks to turf problems elsewhere.

Three-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was among a group of NASCAR drivers who were to be honored by President Barack Obama at the White House Monday. But steady rain postponed Sunday’s race at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania and that event was rescheduled for Monday.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs says the meeting with Obama has been rescheduled for Aug. 19.

Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet was going to be parked at the White House.

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Johnson Overcomes Setback

Posted by Digory Kirke on August 4, 2009

Monday’s rain delayed NASCAR Sprint Cup event at Pocono Raceway was full of setbacks for Hendrick MotorsportsJimmie Johnson.

Jimmie Johnson's pit crew works on his car during the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania

Jimmie Johnson's pit crew works on his car during the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania

But as he does so often, the defending three-time Cup champion found a way to bounce back.

Johnson fell three laps down in the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 only to get all three back courtesy of the free pass and finish 13th, on the lead lap.

“We dealt with a lot today,” Johnson said. “I have to thank my guys for working so hard and troubleshooting some different things. … We were three laps down and able to get some cautions there at the end. For a while there I thought we would get a top-10, but I pounded the wall off [Turn] 2 and tore up the right side of the car and lost a couple of spots. Just a lot of fight in this race team. I’m very proud of them.”

Johnson led the race’s opening 22 laps and continued to have one of the fastest cars on the track before coming to pit road for an unscheduled green-flag stop just past the midway point of the 200-lap race.

The team first worked to see if Johnson’s car had a plug-wire issue, but after making a change that turned out to not be the case. The team later changed the carburetor and a spark plug on subsequent stops, losing significant time during the visits to pit road as the group attempted to diagnose the problem.

The spark plugs ultimately appeared to be the source of what ailed Johnson, as he immediately began moving forward again once some of those had been replaced.

“I assume it was a spark-plug issue,” Johnson said. “That’s the last thing we started changing. The car started running better, so it’s just crazy how sometimes a little part like that can go wrong. I know our guys will lookclosely at it to make sure that something like that doesn’t happen again. I’m just so proud of the fight this race team has.

“For us to come back from three laps down and get back on the lead lap and salvage a 13th-place finish means a lot to me. I think we are going in the right direction, and it shows to me what my team is capable of and I know what I’m capable of going into the Chase [For The Sprint Cup].”

Johnson got back on the lead lap under the race’s ninth caution with under 30 laps to go and lined up 25th for the final restart with 13 to go. He gained eight positions on the first lap under green.

Although Johnson failed pick off many more spots, he was still pleased with his team’s ability to make the most of a tough situation.

Teammate Jeff Gordon was among those who took notice of the group’s effort.

“These guys, you can never count them out and that’s what makes them a championship-caliber team, and Jimmie’s a great driver,” Gordon said. “So, it’s unfortunate that they had a car that was probably capable of winning, or at least battling up there for the win, that it kind of took them out of it there. But they fought back and still had a pretty decent day out of it.”

MY WORD

Yesterday’s  performance was incredible by Jimmie and his crew. To end up 13th after being 3 laps down at one point is just incredible. Sure luck had a little bit to do with it but the way his team pulled together and didn’t give up is a testament to the dedication of this team. They could have pulled it into the garage but instead they used the time cautions gave to systematically check one thing after another until they finally found the likely culprit of a bad spark plug or plugs. When it first happened I was so mad I felt like not watching the rest of the race but I’m sure glad I did because the last 20 laps made my day.

When Johnson made it back to the lead lap and quickly moved from 25th to 10th and one point and finished out with a solid 13th keeping his place of 2nd in the points when it could have been a disastrous day.

This just shows what an AWESOME job the team does as a whole….from driver to crew to chief!! Even the way Chad had the crew “fix” their pit area; shows they are 100% in it and that’s why they are champions!!!! (Hope the guy that fell changing the tire is ok)

Today increased my confidence that my favorite driver will hopefully be heading for championship number 4!

HMS Point Standings after Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500.

2nd-Jimmie Johnson-48
3rd-Jeff Gordon-24
10th-Mark Martin-5
23rd-Dale Earnhardt Jr.-88

HMS Results-Sunoco Red Cross Pennslyvania 500.

7th-Mark Martin-5
9th-Jeff Gordon-24
13th-Jimmie Johnson-48
28th-Dale Earnhardt Jr.-88

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Hendrick Motorsports’ Jimmie Johnson ready for the challenge to win fourth consecutive Cup title

Posted by Digory Kirke on July 31, 2009

Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson is no stranger to enjoying historic marks in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series.

Last season he tied Cale Yarborough‘s mark of three consecutive Cup championships. He’s now won back-to-back races at famed Indianapolis Speedway. And he’s chasing a record of his own – a fourth consecutive title.

With his win at the Brickyard, Johnson moved to second in the standings. He also earned his third win of the season, which would place him no worse than second in the realigned standings once the Chase For The Sprint Cup begins in six weeks. Mark Martin leads the series with four wins and Kyle Busch also has three.

As Johnson looks over his past four seasons, he admits that even he is a little awed by his team’s level of success. He won five races en route to his first championship in 2006, 10 in his 2007 title run and seven last year.

This season, he’s won at Martinsville Speedway, Dover International Speedway and now Indy.

Is even he sometimes surprised by his success?

“In some ways I am shocked and surprised,” Johnson said. “I know all the work that goes into it.  On that front, we work very hard to be competitive. But it still surprises me. When I look at the 99 [of Carl Edwards], the 18 [of Kyle Busch], different teams that have been very strong in certain years, then things kind of slow down for whatever reason, it’s really tough to tell why or what it is. Our guys work really hard. I can’t explain it. But I’m glad it’s working for us like this. We’ll just keep working hard and hopefully it will stick around.”

With his Indy win, Johnson moved up in the standings to second behind Stewart-Haas Racing’s Tony Stewart, who leads the standings by 192 points.

Johnson and his Chad Knaus-led team have gained consistency and momentum in recent weeks. Johnson has five consecutive top-10 finishes, seven in the last eight races and 15 overall.

His recent surge has revived championship talk about the team. Asked if he could win a fourth consecutive title, Johnson admitted that winning at Indy certainly helped to boost the team’s confidence with the with Chase just six races away.

“The victory this last weekend is helping that a lot,” Johnson said. “We’ve been so close to winning races, but there’s nothing better than pulling into victory lane and closing the deal.  I look at Michigan. I look at Pocono. I look at Sears Point. New Hampshire we led the most laps.  Just been a lot of races where we’ve been fast. I feel very good about what’s been going on.

“But to close the deal and to win a race just takes the confidence to the next level for the race team. It puts at ease some of the different emotions that exist inside everyone’s heads on our race team. We have a confidence and presence that we know we can do this.”

Still, he knows there’s a lot left this season. There are six more races before the Chase begins, then 10 through which the champion is determined.

Right now, though, Johnson is looking like one of the top contenders down the road.

“There’s still a lot of racing between now and the Chase and then when the Chase starts it’s a long 10 weeks,” he said. “I know we’ve got a lot of challenges ahead. But I feel very good about where we’re at. We’ll use the momentum from this win to get our heads right and be prepared for the Chase.”

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Glad to Be Here

Posted by Digory Kirke on July 31, 2009

rpm_e_martin01_576Mark Martin

is a dynamo running on gratitude. He can overwhelm you with it. Make you tired of hearing it if you’re not careful — if you don’t understand that gratitude is his life force.

After any race, no matter where he has finished, he no sooner catches his breath than he says into somebody’s microphone, “I’m grateful …”

When Rick Hendrick signed him for this season, I couldn’t quite understand why.

That’s because I didn’t understand gratitude as energy. Had no idea Martin would light up the whole Hendrick Motorsports compound all by himself.

The guy was turning 50, which didn’t seem so much a physical drawback — he’s the all-time leader in fitness fanaticism among NASCAR drivers — as an age for cemented habits, such as steadfast courtesy to others on the track.

Usually when an owner signs a settled driver like that, the boss is hedging his bets for a championship, hiring the steady runner in case the younger hot dogs falter.

But Murphy’s Law has governed Martin’s 21-year quest for a championship, leaving him runner-up four times and finishing in the hunt four more times with no Cup to show for it all.

So had Rick Hendrick gone into the business of handing out last chances to nice guys? Was that it?

Martin’s gift season started as a roller coaster — two engine failures, and then, in the eighth race, at Phoenix, his first win since 2005. And then Talladega slapped Martin down again in another wreck.

rpm_e_martin-gustafson01_200

Mark Martin and crew chief Alan Gustafson have won four times this season, the most in Sprint Cup.

By the time he got to Darlington in May, Martin had resigned himself again. He said he’d stopped thinking about points altogether and was just driving for the love of all-out driving. He went out and won that race but then reiterated that it was all for the thrill now.

However, that made two wins, and by June, Hendrick had convinced him it would be a shame to waste those potential seeding points by not making the Chase. So at Michigan, Martin was points racing again, saving just enough fuel to finish, when Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle dueled and ran each other out of gas, and left Martin coasting into Victory Lane.

That made three. A win at Chicagoland made four, most on the tour so far.

And if the Chase began today, Martin would be the top seed.

Even after Johnson won the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard on Sunday by holding off a ferocious charge from Martin and Martin dubbed Johnson “Superman,” that made only three wins for the HMS team star.

So the old man has emerged as the team leader. Hendrick’s move has been anything but a handout, and he already has reaped a tidy return on his investment.

Johnson, asked whether he had a reciprocal nickname for Martin, said, “I don’t know what to call him. ‘Bionic Man’ or something …

“The way he is, what he asks of his team, the way he interacts, his dedication — it’s contagious, brings out the best in all of us on the race team. I could see [Jeff] Gordon, myself, [Dale Earnhardt] Jr., all of us looking at ourselves in the mirror, doing a better job, pushing ourselves harder.

“Look at Mark. The guy is nonstop.”

“Race in, race out, he’s energized all of us,” Hendrick said.

Mark Martin made sure to congratulate Jimmie Johnson in Victory Lane after Johnson's win in the Brickyard 400.

Mark Martin made sure to congratulate Jimmie Johnson in Victory Lane after Johnson's win in the Brickyard 400.

Martin is a predawn riser, a workout machine, a fast walker through the shops and garages, an obsessive weight watcher even with his diminutive frame. He could do commercials for Energizer. All they’d have to do is follow him with a camera.

He got Hendrick himself back on the kind of fitness program Hendrick hadn’t tried since his bout with leukemia a decade ago. Martin was the example Hendrick used to get Earnhardt into running shoes and the gym this spring.

Martin’s gratitude flows from deep and distant in his past. He arrived in NASCAR in 1981 under the assumption he would set this world on fire, hard-drinking, temperamental, self-assured.

That of course didn’t last long. After his first full season, 1982, he slid and then plummeted off the Cup tour. Not until 1988 did Jack Roush lift him out of limbo, and after those two forceful personalities found harmony in 1990, they contended with Dale Earnhardt for the championship.

Bionic Man.

Whence cometh his energy?

“He’s appreciative of the opportunity,” Hendrick said.

And there it is. Gratitude. The driving force, old-fashioned as it might be.

From any postrace interview, but from the latest one for instance: “I’m actually just grateful that I had a chance to race for the win” … “I’m grateful to have had a chance at it” … “I’m grateful for it.”

Mark Martin's had so much influence in a short time at Hendrick Motorsports, he even got Dale Earnhardt Jr. into the gym.

Mark Martin's had so much influence in a short time at Hendrick Motorsports, he even got Dale Earnhardt Jr. into the gym.

Martin’s gratitude flows from deep and distant in his past. He arrived in NASCAR in 1981 under the assumption he would set this world on fire, hard-drinking, temperamental, self-assured.

That of course didn’t last long. After his first full season, 1982, he slid and then plummeted off the Cup tour. Not until 1988 did Jack Roush lift him out of limbo, and after those two forceful personalities found harmony in 1990, they contended with Dale Earnhardt for the championship.

Martin has lived on gratitude ever since.

And that’s what Hendrick has harnessed.

I’m weary of the word “visionary,” from its overuse in racing. Besides, Hendrick deserves better than that.

He is a seer. He saw the dynamics of gratitude in Martin as surely as he saw the uncanny ability to drive a loose race car in a kid named Jeff Gordon in a mediocre car with a shoestring team in 1991.

Now I see what Hendrick wanted with Martin and why he wants him back next year.

After Indy, Hendrick’s voice broke as he said, “Mark was a gentleman. He came to Victory Lane.”

What choked up the top team owner in NASCAR?

Gratitude, I suspect.

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