Johnson clunks along, hopes for win at MISWritten by Dave Woolford | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Jimmie Johnson was to park his No. 48 Chevy on the White House lawn on Aug. 3 and visit with
President Barack Obama. That didn’t happen because rain postponed the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Pocono Raceway until Aug. 3.
In the process, Johnson’s mount almost qualified for the government‘s “Cash For Clunkers” program.
Johnson, the three-time defending Sprint Cup champion and a group of other NASCAR drivers have been rescheduled to meet with President Obama on Aug. 19, three days after the scheduled CARFAX 400 at Michigan International Speedway (MIS).
They’ll have a lot more to talk about then, specifically how it will have become increasingly clear that Johnson’s road to an unprecedented fourth consecutive title will have fewer potholes with signage for his closest pursuers that say, “Yield”, “No passing” and “You might as well brake for animals.”
In short, everyone else will be a long shot.
Going into the Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen on Aug. 9, Johnson and his Rick Hendrick Motorsports team are all but locked down in regard to the upcoming 10-race Chase for the championship. In their past three title runs, the team has kicked it into another gear, starting with the second half of the season. Four on the floor has, again, become five.
The second half of the season swings into high gear with the Brickyard 400 at Indy where everyone struts their best stuff, not only because it’s the prestigious Brickyard, but because it pays the second highest purse of all the Sprint Cup races. Incidentally, seven of the last 11 winners at Indy — including Johnson in 2006 and 2008 — have gone on to win the championship.
Johnson explained that tendency this way: “Indy is so tricky to figure out, that the team that is on top of their game and can win Indy or be competitive at Indy, they’re also the team that can be competitive during the Chase and on the wide variety of tracks that we run at.
“Indy throws a lot of curve balls at you. There’s nothing else like it out there. If you can sort it out in the few hours of practice you have, be competitive in the race, you’re on your A game and you’re gonna be good for the rest of the season.”
Johnson, won Indy a few weeks ago. He had five consecutive top-10 finishes end with his 13th-place finish at Pocono.
But in reality, that was his best finish in his ongoing second-half push.
It appeared Johnson’s junker was ready for a scrap iron appraisal with issues that defied warranty, insurance, recall and even “Cash for Clunker” possibilities.
The engine was totally unreasonable and even mastermind crew chief Chad Knaus was mystified.
Johnson was three laps down halfway through the race. At one point, NASCAR told Johnson he would be black flagged if he didn’t pick up the pace.
Spark plug wires were changed, the carburetor was replaced and, finally, in a move that usually imitates throwing up hands in utter bewilderment, the spark plugs were changed. At that point, it’s close to parking time. In Johnson’s case, it was back to attack time. No more just plugging along. His engine was fond of its new spark and wise pit strategy during caution periods allowed the No. 48 team the time it needed to adjust.
To finish 13th truly defined the championship caliber of Johnson’s team. Even more so than the victory at Indy. Racing is a team game. The driver is merely a fraction of that component. Drivers don’t win championship. Teams do.
“There’s a lot to be proud of,” Johnson said after the race. “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’re 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.”
Johnson, second in points, is a lock to make the Chase field and lost only minimal ground behind points-leader Tony Stewart at Pocono. Stewart leads by 197 points going into the race at Watkins Glen on Aug. 9.
Meanwhile, other teams, those a fraction of a second or two behind Hendrick Motorsports and drivers, Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and … oh, yes, Dale Earnhardt Jr. are trying to uncover the secrets to Hendrick’s success one tiny fragment at a time.
“We’re looking at the films; we’re looking at their cars, trying to pay attention,” Roush-Fenway Racing driver Greg Biffle said. “They’re a little bit ahead of the curve right now, I think, than most of the other teams. But it’s so small of a change. It’s 10- and 20-thousandths of this or that. It’s not a big chunk. We feel like it’s real small and we’re trying to hone in on what that is.”
Johnson admitted he’s somewhat surprised at his team’s success, and is some ways even shocked.
“When I look at the 99 (Carl Edwards), the 18 (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,” Johnson said, the implication being that other team’s consistency is not always trimmed out.
In answer to Biffle’s inquisitiveness, maybe the best way to the core of Johnson’s success is through the mental rather than the metal. Tell him he’s the best. Explain that there’s no other like him in the history of the sport. Make him think he’s Jimmie Superior.
Johnson admitted if he listens, he could become listless. When he thinks too deeply, he can become droopy.
“I don’t want to think about these things,” he said. “I just want to go out and drive and do what I know how to do. I’m better at reacting than thinking. I joke around with it a lot. I’m not good at thinking. I’m better when I strap myself in that car, go out and do what I know how to do.
“The distance between my ears has caused problems in the past, and it does to everybody, especially with the pressure of the Chase. If I can keep that stuff out of my head, not think about what could be or what I could do for myself and my career and status, the better I’m gonna be.”
Thinking and driving can be a bad combination for some.