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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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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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Brickyard a Building Block toward Championship

Posted by Digory Kirke on July 30, 2009

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What a difference three years make.

When Jimmie Johnson headed to Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2006, all the questions were about why he fared so poorly at the famous venue – as well about when he thought he would be able to break through and win his first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

Fast forward to 2009, and the questions are of a highly different nature heading into the latest stock-car race at Indy.

Johnson now is the three-time defending champion in the Cup series. He’s also won two of the last three times he’s raced in his No. 48 Lowe’s Impala SS at the hallowed Brickyard.

“This track has been so feast or famine for us,” Johnson said. “We’ve either won or been on fire, wrecked.”

Typically, his wins in 2006 and in 2008 at Indy were sandwiched around a fiery wreck in 2007 that relegated him to at 39th-place finish. Other than his two victories, he’s finished in the top 10 only one other time there – that coming in his rookie season in 2002 when he started 37th and finished ninth, followed by finishes of 18th, 36th and 38th in the next three years before he registered his breakthrough win at the track in 2006.

And make no mistake. That was indeed a breakthrough victory. Many believe it helped vault Johnson to his first championship, which in turn launched him on a string of championships that has been matched only one other time in NASCAR history – when Cale Yarborough won three titles in a row from 1976 through 1978.

“I feel very fortunate to have won on many of the major tracks we compete on and in many of  the major events in our series,” Johnson said. “At the time to overcome such a difficult track for the 48 team meant a lot to us, gave us a lot of hope and belief in overcoming the hurdle to win a championship. It had been right there in front of us, but we kept missing it. It really set the pace for us to go on and have good things take place.

“It also was really rewarding to really have struggled at a track and come back and finally beat it, after it had beaten us so many times. We won the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard in the same year, then went on to win the championship. So it was extremely special.”

This year Johnson hopes to use Indy as a springboard to an even loftier place in stock-car racing annals. He is attempting to become the only Cup driver ever to win four championships in a row.

When it comes to chasing history, there is no better place to do it than Indianapolis Motor Speedway, according to Rick Hendrick of Hendrick Motorsports, which fields Johnson’s formidable car.

“Every win is special, but there’s definitely something unique about Indy,” Hendrick said. “The track has so much history, and you can just feel it when you walk in. There are certain places that are always going to be special, and that’s one of them.”

As special and as important as Johnson’s first victory was at Indy in 2006, Hendrick said he believes that last year’s win in an event marred by tire problems for all competitors was at least as pivotal in helping the No. 48 team ultimately complete another run to the points championship.

Indypitroad (Small)

“Any victory is going to be big in building confidence and momentum,” Hendrick said.

“I think that win last year was important because the 48 team was running well but hadn’t won a race in a while. So Indy helped us build some steam as we went into the Chase (for the Sprint Cup championship).”

Hendrick added that he’s not surprised at all that Johnson and his team have turned around their fortunes at a track that once seemed to have their number – and not in a good way. He also made it a point to credit crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the No. 48 team for Johnson’s success as a driver.

Asked why he thinks Johnson has been so good lately at the Brickyard, Hendrick replied: “For the same reasons he’s good at other places. Jimmie’s one of the smartest drivers I’ve ever seen. He gives exceptional feedback and has a great feel for the chassis. He’s a real technician in the car, and that’s to his advantage everywhere we race.

“But it’s not just Jimmie. You can’t discount how important Chad and the crew are. Chad has done an unbelievable job building that team, and they really have the total package: great driver, crew chief, team and car. That’s tough to beat.”

That’s tough to beat most anywhere on the Sprint Cup circuit. But in recent years, it has become even tougher for others to contend with at Indy. Johnson still maintains that it all changed with the victory in 2006.

“There are so many positives that came from it — the attitude the team had, the momentum it gave us, that sense of feeling like we beat something that had been beating us,” Johnson said.

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MY WORD

Now with his third win at the Brickyard and making NASCAR History by being the first driver to win it Back 2 Back you can bet that, that drive and confidence is even stronger than before. Watch out I see, feel, and smell a Fourth (4- Peat) Consecutive Championship coming!

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CONGRATULATIONS JIMMIE

Posted by Digory Kirke on July 29, 2009

ON YOUR BACK TO BACK ALLSTATE BRICKYARD 400!

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Johnson's 2009 Brickyard 400 burnout

Jimmie kissing the bricks 2009Allstate 400Kissing the Bricks VictoryIndianapolis Motor Speedway

JJ Brickyard 400 2009JJ's 43rd career winNASCAR Indianapolis Auto Racing2009 AllstateWin_160x600

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JOHNSON STILL THE MAN TO BEAT!

Posted by Digory Kirke on July 28, 2009

Jimmie Johnson is gunning for his fourth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

Jimmie Johnson is gunning for his fourth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

Give Jimmie Johnson credit for honesty.

Asked if felt at all sorry for Juan Pablo Montoya, who dominated Sunday’s Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, but lost it on a late-race speeding penalty, Johnson showed a rare bit of candor and insight into a racer’s personality.

“No,” said the three-time defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, laughing audibly in the process. “We’re all so selfish. I could say if you want, I would have gone to Victory Lane to congratulate him. I would have been proud of him.”

And then he added, “I’m sure happy I got the trophy.”

Johnson passed his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin on a late-race restart with 24 laps to go to take his first and only lead of the race, holding on to defeat Martin by 0.400 seconds. That gave Johnson his third Brickyard 400 victory in the last four years and made him the only driver to win it twice in a row.

The untold storyline, however, is it also was clear evidence that Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team are ready to pursue a fourth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup title, something no one has ever managed since the series began racing 60 years ago.

Quietly, Johnson has begun to round into championship form. In his last eight races, he’s earned two victories, four top-five and seven top-10 finishes. During that time he has led a total of 626 laps. The only race he didn’t finish in the top 10 came at Michigan International Speedway, where he led 146 of 200 laps, only to run out of gas on the last lap of the race.

Yes, Tony Stewart still leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup points standings with a margin of 192 points over Johnson. And Stewart’s third-place finish at the Brickyard shows he’s not going anywhere, but there’s no question that Johnson is rounding into title form.

And without doubt, Johnson has become a dominant closer, a clutch performer who finishes races the way John Elway used to finish football games for the Denver Broncos and Mariano Rivera picked up saves for the New York Yankees. Like Michael Jordan in the final minute of an NBA game, Johnson and Co. function at their absolute best when the race is on the line. Johnson showed that much when he out dueled Martin in the closing laps.

“It was cool to see,” Johnson said of the victory, his third of the season and 43rd of his career. “It’s what the 48 is known for. I’m glad we were able to win today because it gives us the confidence in our approach to the race, what we need to do coming up into the Chase (for the Sprint Cup). I feel very good about the way things are going and where we’re headed.”

The surprising part of all this, perhaps, is that more people aren’t talking about Johnson’s pursuit of history. Then again, that suits the El Cajon, Calif., native just fine.

“I mean, it has been quiet,” he said. “That is good because it allows us to focus and not get caught up in all the energy around winning races and leading the points. But we know it’s coming. We know the Chase is coming up. Our guys are trying to treat each race leading into the Chase like we are in the Chase.”

And for the last three seasons, the Chase has been the No. 48 team’s time to shine. Johnson thinks it could be again this year.

“We’re buckled down and ready,” he said. And after his Brickyard triumph, no one could doubt he means business.

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