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Jimmie’s Drive Through History Continues

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, February 23 2017

No. 48 has his sights set on No. 8 as the 2017 NASCAR season gets under way. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Andrew Coppley)

Jimmie Johnson will be crowned NASCAR’s “Eighth Wonder” with his next championship, the one that will separate the Hendrick Motorsports superstar from Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

The long and grinding Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series road moves into full race mode Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway, where drivers and teams will compete in the Can-Am Duels (Fox Sports 1, 7-10 p.m. EST).

The unique qualifying format will determine starting positions three through 40 for Sunday’s 59th annual Daytona 500. The highest finishers other than pole-winner Chase Elliott in Duel 1 will fill the third through 39th starting spots Sunday, while the highest finishers in Duel 2 other than Dale Earnhardt Jr. will line up in the fourth through 40th positions.

Despite hinting that he’s a little out of shape, Johnson figures to be in the mix for “The Great American Race” and Championship No. 8.

“That’s a great opportunity.  I’m excited to have this opportunity,” the two-time Daytona 500 champion said during NASCAR’s annual Media Day activities Wednesday at DIS.  “At the same time, there’s so much racing between now and Homestead (Fla.), and the fact that we have to qualify for the playoffs and then stay alive in the playoffs helps take pressure off of me and our organization to do that right now. 

“So we’ll just go racing and see what happens.  I honestly…I have nothing to be ashamed of in my career, and I feel like I only have upside potential with more race wins and hopefully shots at championships, so I’m not going to put pressure on myself to worry about eight.  If we get it, it’ll be one heck of a party.  But until then, we’re going to have fun still.” 

You want to bet against JJ and crew chief Chad Knaus? At age 41, Johnson has shown no signs of slowing down. The native Californian has won at least four races for the last five seasons and multiple races in all 15 of his fulltime Cup campaigns. Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS, heads into the 2017 season with 80 career wins, 218 top-five and 330 top-10 finishes.

Johnson is among 38 teams locked into the Daytona 500 _36 via charter and the two fastest open teams from Sunday’s qualifying, Elliott Sadler and Brendan Gaughan. The highest finisher in each Duel among the open teams will make the Daytona 500. The other open team entries will be driven by Reed Sorenson, Corey LaJoie (both in Duel 1), and Timmy Hill or DJ Kennington (in Duel 2).

Johnson addressed a variety of subjects during his presser. An edited transcript follows:

QUESTIONJimmie, I’m told that on Sunday morning you did about a 42-mile bike ride.  Do you anticipate exceeding that mileage in advance of Sunday’s Daytona 500? 

JIMMIE JOHNSON:  “Yeah, definitely looking forward to getting some bike miles in.  And to touch on last Sunday, Scott Lagasse, who many know, has championed a cause here in Florida for a lot of years to help raise awareness for cycling in the area and rider safety, and I think it was probably the third or fourth annual ride.  It was cut a little short because we had to race later that afternoon, but well-attended through the NASCAR drivers this year, which was really neat to see.

“I was going to ride this afternoon, but it looks like we might have rain. My suit is a little tight for some reason.  I know I need to get on that bike and start running off some fat.” 

QUESTON: You’ve won a couple Daytona 500s but I’m sure you’ve made some mistakes that you feel have cost you.  What is that like to have the experience, all the pressure and stress of this race, where every move is scrutinized, the biggest race of the year, you run 500 miles, and if you make one tiny error with a dominant car say with even 20 laps to go, it can cost you the victory? 

JIMMIE JOHNSON:  “It’s hard to say that it’s just one move because your surroundings kind of dictate your opportunities.  There are things that you miss and you try to file away in your brain to not miss in the future. But unless it’s a decision you made off of Turn 4 coming to the checkered, there’s so many things that can play-out and so many things out of your control that it helps in a lot of respects. 

“I’d have to say, though, that the way the rules package is now with the smaller plate, it’s much more difficult to pass for the lead, so it…the pit stop or two prior to the end of the race and how you come off of pit road and how you line up on the ensuing restarts has more to do with it, so we might be able to now kind of find a moment in time like, ‘Man, messed-up on pit road, I got a bad restart.’  So it’s starting to develop now, and spending time watching last year’s 500 on the flight in (Tuesday) night, once you get the lead, it’s hard to lose it.  It has to be the perfect storm behind you to create the opportunity to pass with a smaller restrictor plate.” 

QUESTION: In the last few days what have the discussions been like with Chad about the couple of Hendrick cars getting loose on Sunday, and what is going on back at the shop?  Have you been updated? 

JIMMIE JOHNSON:  “Yeah, I mean, so the restrictor plate rules package is the same this year as it was last.  We can’t sit still.  We need faster cars.  Everybody is working on it.  We were very aggressive in the Shootout trying to create speed for the car, and I’m a guy that likes a loose race car so I was willing to roll dice.  We also thought we’d be racing at night, which we thought would help the grip level.  Raced during the day (after a rainout), and it just didn’t turn out for us.

“We had great notes to fall back on.  We had a very good driving car in last year’s 500, and then two teammates that didn’t spin out in the Clash, so we have plenty of notes to go to, but we’re definitely being aggressive.” 

QUESTION: Jimmie, we’ve seen the Toyotas work together, saw the Fords kind of work a little bit more together.  Does it put more emphasis on you guys _ the organization, the Chevrolet teams _ maybe having a need to work together more?  You talked about how difficult it is to pass now. 

JIMMIE JOHNSON:  “Yeah, I mean, Joe Gibbs Racing and the Barney Visser cars, I would anticipate seeing much more of that.  I think Fords, as you mentioned, are trying.  I can’t say that…it’s such a tough thing to do.  I commend the Toyota guys for making it work as they have.  We’ve tried and we’ll continue to try.  It’s just very hard to stick with it through the entire race.  But if you can control the head of the line, as the Toyota guys did, it’s much easier.  The problem is when you’re separated in the pack and trying to get back up there.

“You know, if you’re the aggressor or the person behind you has to push you by and get you clear of the car you’re next to or trying to get around and then they get hung-out, it’s so tough to come through the pack together.  But once you arrive at the front, it’s a different game then and we’re certainly aware of that and want to use that to our advantage if we get there as a group.” 

QUESTION: How much do you guys show up here and already say these are the favorites to win the Daytona 500. Or can you work on things and get a groove and see who’s going to be good?  How much of that is developed through the week versus we know these are going to be the guys when you show up? 

JIMMIE JOHNSON:  “It’s hard for us to find much speed through the course of the week.  I think the early opinions of strong organizations will last through the 500, and it’s the time between now and when we go to Talladega where an organization can find something to implement on their cars to put speed in it. Once you’re here, you don’t have a chance to really work on stuff as you would if you go to the shop, so it’s just a couple bolt-on pieces that you can play with and mess around with. 

“You know, if you don’t have the raw speed, I think teams switch into survival mode; let’s make sure that our car drives really well.  Two or three rows back in traffic is a totally different environment than leading, and if that’s where you’re going to spend the majority of the race, which it kind of turns out that way for most organizations, you need a different car than you do to lead. 

So you just start working with what you have, and we’re developing those opinions…I think we haven’t had a chance to draft with our 500 cars, so the Duels are going to be that moment in time where we understand, am I going to set this thing up to lead and hope that I can keep track-position for 500 miles, or do I really need to focus on handling and being in the draft?” 

QUESTION: A couple questions about a teammate.  What do you see from Chase Elliott’s second year out here as to having a year behind him now? And you’ve been in that position of trying to get your first race win; how much does that weigh on a young driver? 

JIMMIE JOHNSON:  “Thinking through Chase’s situation systematically, the first half of last year was a lot of new things for him.  Fortunately we come back to most of the tracks a second time in the fall, and to watch him as a man, as a driver, as a teammate, the way we all work together through the summer months to get our cars faster and the bond that we built, the communication we developed with one another, that’s only carried through the offseason and I think has helped build his confidence.  He learned a couple tough lessons last year being so close to victory and slipped away for whatever the reasons may be. 

“He’s going to win.  He’s going to win a lot.  Once he rings the bell the first time, he’s not going to stop, and then championships will be next on his radar. I’m just happy we have him at Hendrick Motorsports.  I’d hate to race against him.” 

QUESTION: On that note, what advice do you give or have you given Chase over the last year? And just how different do you think it’ll be for him to be on the pole this year compared to a year ago? 

JIMMIE JOHNSON:  “I mean, pressure is a weird thing.  I think sometimes directly or indirectly with the way I communicate with him, the time I spend with him and his team, I’m trying to defuse any unnecessary pressure or any added pressure.  It’s just racing.  It’s just a car.  It’s all he’s ever done.  He’s at Hendrick Motorsports.  He has (crew chief) Alan Gustafson and a great team and Jeff Gordon to lean on.  Let’s not overthink things; let’s just get in there and react and do what you love and do what you’ve been brought up doing.

“He’s only won through his entire career and he’s done amazing things in the Xfinity Series at a young age, so it’s in there. I think it’s easy to put too much pressure on yourself or to allow the outside pressure to creep in, and I’m trying to help him avoid that, mainly from an indirect standpoint.  I haven’t really talked to him about that, but that’s what’s been going on in my mind and how I’ve handled things.”

QUESTION: Are you still out West with the family?  When do you plan on coming back to Charlotte, if you plan on coming back to Charlotte, and how was that for an offseason, because it seems like it was a really big difference for you to have the family out there and be away from all the chaos of Charlotte. 

JIMMIE JOHNSON:  “Yeah, we’ll be back to Charlotte in May.  With my wife’s art gallery and then work on my side, we’ve got to be back.  She’s had a place there in Charlotte for two or three years now.  So we’ll be back, but the…I grew up outdoors quite a bit.  The way my family raised me with traveling around.  My wife did, as well, and just through our adult lives so far, we’ve been pretty busy and not so tapped into the outdoors, and our vacations and trips to Colorado have kind of spurred the purchase of a home and us spending more time, and then for the offseason, we just felt like it wouldn’t be a better way to spend time as a family unit.

“You know, the experiences we’ve had together, the quality time we’ve had together, we’re trying to charge that battery as much as we can because the season is so demanding, takes a toll on us, that we’re trying to…that’s really the reason we’re there is just to spend more time together as a family, and the outdoors provides a great backdrop for that.” 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, February 23 2017
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