AUTO CLUB 400
Trackside with Jimmie Johnson
This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!
Published on Sat, Mar 22, 2014
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
Story and pictures by Brian Kennedy
Jimmie Johnson is not happy with his car, nor how his team has done thus far this year. Now, don’t think he’s got a hate on for anyone who works with him. When he said what’s just been cited, he did so in the typical magnanimous way. Witness for yourself his words in the press conference he held at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana on Friday morning:
“It’s not even close to the time yet” to get anxious about not having won a race, he started out saying. “I still think that points are every bit as important as winning a race, until you get to Homestead. . . . Points are still the focus. We’ve been able to win multiple races a year with a certain mindset, and I’m not going to chase homeruns.”
Noth. Except for Daytona, we’ve showed up for four of the [first] five. . . . We didn’t test as often as we’d have liked during the off-season to understand this rules package. And we’ve got plenty to do to catch up.” He said that his team has come a long way each weekend between roll-off and race, but “if we could come off the truck how we start a race, I think we’ll be in that race-winning window.”
In other words, “Cheerfully speaking, we’ve sucked.” The results aren’t horrible: fifth, sixth, sixth, and nineteenth, but they’re not Johnson-level excellent, either.
But if he’s not doing terribly well so far, his odds are quite likely to get better pretty quick, though he said he was anxious to get past this race, the Auto Club 400 on Sunday, and move on to the next five. In fact, if you’re into stats, almost no number that NASCAR cites regarding his performance at the Fontana track puts him less than first.
That is, he’s first in average running position, driver rating, number of fastest laps run, green flag speed, and laps in the top 15 of all the drivers currently competing at this track. He has won the most races, also, at five. This is where he got his first series win, in 2002. He is the only driver to win two in a row, late in 2009 and early in 2010.
The driver rating, by the way, is an amalgamation of the following stats: wins, finishing, top-15s, average running position on the lead lap, average speed under green, faster laps, leading the most laps, and lead-lap finishing. Yeah, I agree with what you’re thinking—that’s really too much number crunching, and it doesn’t tell you much more than results and point totals combined. But that’s OK, the point remains—JJ’s better than the field in a heck of a lot of ways.
More people than not care about Johnson. As he said, “Souvenir sales, licensed merchandise is higher here than at any other track” due to this being his home track—he’s from the San Diego area. But NASCAR’s trip to Fontana is much more than “What’s Jimmiegonna do?” The prerace events, including qualifying for Sunday, were witnessed Friday by what looked like a handful of thousands of fans, but the ones who were there were the devoted ones. I saw Earnhardt tattoos, M&Ms jackets, Jeff Gordon crew clothing, and more than a few people waiting in the area where drivers go from motorhome to paddock waiting with diecast cars and lots of other goodies to sign.
So here are a few impressions from Friday, up close and personal.
Like all famous people, NASCAR drivers are smaller in person than they appear on TV. This is not the first time I’ve seen them up close, but it’s always strange to see that Jeff Gordon looks so tiny, or Almendinger, or even Johnson, who is relatively tall, but super-small of body. Not “skinny” in a bad way, but slight, let’s say.
The work in the garage has not reached the point of the frantic yet, but teams are working steadily away at their setups. Those cars, incidentally, are so spotless and new that it’s like they just came off the showroom floor. They’re as clean underneath as they are on top. It’s like a concourse trailered showcar rolling out of the garage. Now, by the end of Sunday, they’ll be more than a little dirtied up from rubber and dust that will ping off the undercarriage during the on-track action. But we’re talking about Friday here, right?
Another impression: this year’s NASCAR racing has infinitely complicated the matter of setups by changing the rule governing ride height.
Let’s let Johnson describe this one: “The surprising thing this year is how complicated the setups are. Minor changes in the rules, at least in minor wordage in the rulebook and what we’re allowed to do in setups, in terms of ride height, in that particular area, completely changes the angles on the car, and they’re very sensitive and very difficult to get right, and that’s been our biggest learning curve right now, how to get all your ride heights correct and not have it change the balance of the race car and the setup of the race car because with the front sway bar and geometry and the rear ride height and that whole mouse trap that goes on, it’s really confusing and it can create issues. That part has been a big shock to everybody.”
NASCAR racing is neither for the timid nor the dumb. In terms of the timid, when you see the cars coming down the front straightaway and going past at 200mph, brushed up against the wall and bouncing and jumping on the bumpy and seamed California asphalt, you know it takes some guts to drive these things.
And in terms of the dumb: the fact is, every one of these cars is tuned with a laptop. The photos prove the point. This is not a hillbilly hoedown, no matter what it once might have been (and on that point, I’ll take a guy who can tune a carb by ear and get a Hemi singing over an academic egghead who drives a Prius and can’t find his way from the Mall to the ice cream shop without GPS, thank you).
Did I just say that? Yeah, but for those of you who hate stereotypes and who don’t know me: I am an academic egghead. PhD. Dozens of conference papers. A handful of refereed articles. And six books (soon to be seven). But I still like the guys who can make stuff work better than theoreticians.
And finally, there is still a grassroots element in NASCAR. Sure, there are the rich guys, the million-buck-sponsor teams. And those are most of the teams these days. But then there’s Derrike Cope. I saw him near the end of tech on Friday, standing beside his Nationwide Series car by himself, no sponsor paint on the car, a person or two nearby in black garb who might or might not have been part of his team. Cope himself, a surprise Daytona 500 winner way back in 1990, was in a pair of jeans and a button-up sportshirt. And he seemed, from the middle distance perspective that I looked at him from, small, a grayed and slightly thickened version of his younger self, like a lot of people. If I could pick one word for him, it might have been “forlorn.”
It’s too bad, because guys like him are what NASCAR was built on, and the fact that he’s out here in Cali, doing his little deal while the bigshots spend time on bigger concerns (as Johnson said about yesterday, “I came out yesterday and did some media in LA, took advantage of being in this market”) makes his sincere efforts seem less glamorous than, say, Johnson’s. Nothing wrong with that, and Johnson seems, despite the boos he gets from some people, like a really decent guy.
My evidence? He was asked exactly the same question twice, something about the Chase for the Cup and the points and what place wins take in that. And he didn’t blanche at all. He didn’t even give the polite, “Well, I spoke to that before, and I said . . . “ before launching into his answer. He just answered the question like it was the first time, and he even threw in enough variation in the script to give a little nugget to the whole group, who were glaring at the question-asker with a “you need to show up on time” look in their eyes.
As for Cope, his career has been up and down. Now in his mid-50s, he’s never fulfilled the promise of his two wins, that 500 and another in the same 1990 season. His most recent full campaign was in the Nationwide Series in 2011, when he ran 33 races and finished 20th in the standings. I imagine that he spends about as much time chasing money as he does chasing other cars around the track, but who knows? Maybe there’s family money there and he’s just doing what he wants. I didn’t get the chance to talk to him. Once he noticed that I’d recognized him, he busied himself with the car. Maybe he’s heard all the questions before. Or maybe he’s just a dedicated racer with a job to do and a small staff to get it done with. What’s fun about NASCAR, to put that another way, is what’s fun about following any sport—at least half the action is in the form of gossip and speculation about who’s doing what and why. So those of you on the fence about heading out to the track this weekend, think of the adventure in one of two ways—as a spectacle of noise and activity that will give you lots of eye and ear candy. Or as a chance to get up close and personal with a world that rolls through SoCal only one time a year. And just to go back once more to Johnson—things can’t be too bad, because he made it through three rounds of knockout qualifying on Friday and ended up with the third grid spot, .078 seconds off the best time of Matt Kenseth. Sunday, when the race comes, we’ll see what his ability to run a hot lap or a few translates to in 400 miles. Read Brian Kennedy’s NASCAR-azy! – Auto Club 400 weekend comes to town