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Johnson Ready To Stage A Successful Road Show

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, August 9 2009
Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have heard a lot about the futility in road races this week.   (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have heard a lot about the futility in road races this week. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Watkins Glen, N.Y. – There aren’t many holes the size of a pin in the racing resume of Jimmie Johnson, the three-time and reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.

Forty-three victories, 19 poles , 110 top-five and 170 top-10 finishes in 276 career starts qualifies as enough said.

Still, Johnson’s failure to win on either of NASCAR’s two road courses remains unfinished business heading into Sunday’s Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at The Glen. Fifteen of Johnson’s career Cup starts have come at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., and Watkins Glen International – where his  “ofer” on courses with right-and-left turns, elevation changes and various forms of “kitty litter” continues to confound the Hendrick Motorsports superstar.

“It’s surprising that I’ve not been better on a road course in a Cup car,” said Johnson, a three-time winner this season and second in points to Tony Stewart through 21 races. “(But) I don’t feel like I need it (a win) to complete my resume. It’s been shocking to me and I saw this with short tracks as well.”

Johnson has notched 32 of his victories on superspeedways, defined by NASCAR as tracks 1-mile or longer, including all those “cookie-cutter” 1.5-mile quadovals on the schedule. Nine wins have been scored on short tracks and two on restrictor plate layouts. Johnson’s average finish on NASCAR’s 2.45-mile version of venerable WGI is a so-so 13.1, a stat that includes three top-fives, four top-10s and the feeling he is close to checking off that empty box.

Johnson accelerated that process Friday when he notched the first road-racing pole of his career, and first in eight attempts at WGI, with a single-lap of 71.340-seconds and 123.633 mph.  His previous best starting spot here was fifth.

“I’m excited. I’m looking for that first road course win,” said Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet Impala SS. “I think that we’re getting closer and closer. I’m hopeful that it’s this weekend. At Sonoma we overcame a lot and finished fourth, and I left there extremely optimistic for this race. Last year (at WGI) we were really fast. We had a cut left-rear tire and had to come back from pitting under green and then pass a lot of cars to have a decent finish (seventh). So I’m very optimistic about things and looking forward to it.”

Paired with crew chief Chad Knaus, Johnson’s Cup career has been marked by near-unprecedented instant success. He earned his first pole in only his fourth start – at Daytona International Speedway – in February 2002. His first career victory followed at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., in only his 13th start.

“The types of tracks I figured I would be really good at with my background in off-road trucks and road-racing that I’ve done, I thought that I would come into a NASCAR-style vehicle and take to it right away,” Johnson said. “In those vehicles you can really hustle the vehicle and make up time. In these stock cars, you really have to look at it in a way that you have a lot of opportunities to lose time. There’s very few places to make time and it’s just been tough for me to switch over. I’ve had to forget everything from what I’ve done in the past to drive fast in a Cup car.

“My example for the short tracks was that in ASA (American Speed Association), I was really competitive and ran on a lot of the great short tracks around the country. I (thought) I would go back to that same short track in a heavier car with a radial tire (and excel) and I was terrible. But I did better at the 1.5-miles out of the gate in the Busch (now Nationwide) Series.

“It’s been kind of that weird thing for me and I don’t understand it. Now when I get into the Grand-Am car and run it at the Rolex 24, my old styles and habits work really well with that type of vehicle. I hopped in a Grand-Am car and am on-pace with my teammates (Jon Forgarty and Alex Gurney of GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing) 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.”

NASCAR’s reigning road-racing aces – Jeff Gordon and Stewart – agreed that Johnson’s winless streak is nothing more than an aberration. Both Gordon and Stewart are four-time winners at the track located amid the rolling hills and wineries of New York’s Finger Lakes Region.

“I think he’s (Johnson) proven how good he is with winning at so many different tracks already,” said Gordon, Johnson’s car-owner/teammate at HMS and driver of the No. 24 DuPont Chevy. “ I’m sure in his mind he’d like to add that to his resume to complete it. I know he’s worked really hard at it. And that’s what makes a good road-course driver _ somebody who’s challenged by it and enjoys that challenge and goes after it. He certainly has.”

Gordon has led nine of 16 races at The Glen for 227 laps, most of any active series driver.

“ I’m not so sure…other than maybe the first couple of years he (Johnson) was at Hendrick…I’m not so sure that we’ve had the best package out there on the road-courses the last three or four years,” said Gordon, a two-time pole-winner here. “When I was winning all my road-course races (1997-99 and 2001), I felt we did have the best package _ and that 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.”

Stewart, who won his four races at WGI during a six-year period from 2002-2007, shrugged-off the idea that Johnson needs a road-race win to validate anything NASCAR-related.

”I think three consecutive championships is enough to pretty much overshadow the fact that he hasn’t won a road-course race,” said Stewart, driver of the No. 14 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevy that is a satellite HMS team. “There’s a lot of pride amongst the drivers being able to win at every discipline and try to win at every racetrack, so I’m sure that’s something that’s high on his priority list.”

Stewart has yet to qualify on-pole in 11 WGI starts, but he’s led 191 laps.

Series veteran Mark Martin, a three-time winner at WGI during his heyday at Roush Racing, said his HMS teammate is looking super-fast this weekend. “But that’s OK, and we’ll push him anyway,” said Martin, driver of the No. 5 CARQUEST/Kellogg’s Chevy. “We’ll push him to do that and he is very competitive, and I think it’s one of those matter-of-time deals when everything has to line up just right.”

Martin has qualified on-pole here three times in 20 starts, and his 204 laps-led trail only Gordon.

Johnson logged 16 laps during Saturday morning’s first practice, and his speed of 122.335 mph was third on the chart, behind Australian Marcos Ambrose (122.643 mph) and former IndyCar champion Sam Hornish Jr. (122.379 mph). Johnson moved to second, at 122.483 mph, during the final Happy Hour practice paced by Ambrose at 123.021 mph.

Johnson said the fact that he’s won three consecutive championships – tying the series record set by Cale Yarborough – hardly has diminished his desire to win on a road-course.

“Truthfully, it’s been on my list far before winning a Cup championship,” Johnson 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.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, August 9 2009
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