AUTO CLUB 400
Jimmie Johnson Takes the Checkered Flag and the Record Book
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Published on Mon, Mar 21, 2016
By: The LACar Editorial Staff
Story by Brian Kennedy
Pictures by Gabriela Moya
Like Superman or Loathe Him?
Is it fun watching Jimmie Johnson win all the time? That’s one storyline coming out of the Auto Club 400 in Fontana on Sunday, where he took his sixth race of 22 he has run at the track. He has now notched 77 wins in 512 starts in Sprint Cup. Thing is, he didn’t do it in dominating fashion. In fact, he wasn’t ahead much until the last two OT laps. So it’s not like people had to watch his smiling face on the big screens all day.
Wh tires. But Jimmie did a good job. We fell back to seventh or eighth but as aggressive as everybody was driving right then he was able to manage his tires well and was able to get by a couple of other guys. I think we were probably going to settle in about fifth or sixth. But that caution [at the end] came out and coming down pit road, our pit crew guys knew what they needed to do. They needed to try to get us some spots if we were going to have any chance of victory.”
He said that they had a good stop, gained a couple of spots that put them in third, and that he then told Jimmie, “Buddy dig in deep, and go find that cape.” Huh? Their car had a Superman paint scheme due to its sponsorship. More on the cape in a while. “He got up on the #4 car, then pushed past the car on the outside. He was able to drive down the inside and blow by the #4 car and make it happen.”
But a glimpse at Johnson’s performance through the afternoon after he started from a 19th qualifying position show that he was not dominant by any means, cape or not.
In fact, the hero role belonged to Kevin Harvick, who charged to the lead from a starting spot of second and hung there most of the day. He was so good on longer runs that it seemed like he was holding back at times. In the early going, Edwards chased him, sometimes diving underneath entering the first turn. Harvick was turning laps of 40 seconds, and by lap seven, he had a 19 second—half lap—lead over the car that was trailing the field. That was Josh Wise in No. 30.
Later Edwards took on Truex for the lead while Harvick observed from third or fourth spot. But they were never that far from each other’s bodywork. Meanwhile, Johnson hung between eighth and 10th in the first 50 or 60 laps. But just past halfway and a series of pit stops, Harvick was chased by Johnson, who was starting to serve notice that whatever was wrong with his car in qualifying had been adjusted back to right.
Truex then came on, with Harvick, Johnson, and Kenseth chasing him after another yellow and restart at lap 131. As the laps went on, Truex took a high line with Harvick low, able to slide up in front of Truex coming out of the first turn. It looked like “command” and “Harvick” were synonyms, and that the battle was for fifth between Logano, Kenseth, and Hamlin, with Johnson forgotten. Good thing bets weren’t being placed on the eventual outcome at that moment. Harvick’s laps, by the way, were remarkably consistent compared to earlier, 41 seconds on my watch.
By lap 184, the top five cars (Harvick, Edwards, Busch, Logano, and Chase Elliott) were stretched out in a long string. Truex had pitted after what later was revealed to be trouble on the track with Logano, who is quickly becoming a pariah amongst his competitors.
Then Busch blew his tire, entered the pits, and made a big bang! that I could hear from across the track, and set up a shootout. The leaders pitted. Johnson came into the pits 5th, left 3rd, and took the lead on the restart by sticking it low and, as he said, feeling a tremendous bite as the car dug in and stuck. It was two laps to the end, and the victory was not in question once the initial pass was made. Poor Harvick came home also-ran. Hamlin had a good third place, with Logano and Stenhouse trailing them, about which more in a moment.
And so the boos mixed with the cheers as Johnson celebrated. On the other hand, who can dislike the guy who shows up in the media center after the race sporting a Superman cape, a leftover from the sponsorship he had for the race? He wore it into the center, and was still wearing it at the end when doing informal interviews after the main press coverage was finished.
Johnson had quite a balanced view of the matter of his win, saying that on this California track, there is “so much the driver can control, setting up passes and looking for lines.” With the second to last pit stop, he was pretty confident in his car, “but I dropped like a rock, and I was pretty bummed out at that point. I wasn’t sure how the finish would go, but then Kyle had more unfortunate luck here, with the tire [laughs] and it set up that caution and pit stop.”
The eventual restart, pass, and win, he didn’t take personal credit for: “I don’t know where I came in, but I know I came out way further forward than I did coming in. My guys just crushed the pit stop. Great restart. Great driving car. We weren’t good on the short run in the, all the previous restarts, but those two laps, whatever Chad did with tire pressures and adjustments on that last stop, the car was incredible. I got a great launch off turn two, and was next to the #4 down the back, and I was just praying that I would hear ‘clear’ [from the spotter] coming into turn three, and eventually I did, and I felt pretty good about bringing it home with just one more lap to go.”
He looped back to the closing moments later on, further describing his strategy in the car. “You really have to play attention to who you’re around and know their habits and their traits. There was an earlier restart, I guess the one before, and I made a decision on which lane I chose by who was third and fourth and how aggressive they are on restarts. Kevin and I had a restart earlier in the day, and I was able to get to his bumper and give him a shot, and I think that gave us the opportunity we had on that final restart. I didn’t expect to get inside of him and really have a shot at racing for the win. My whole goal lining up was to clear the #22. I know he’s fast, he’s good, he’s very aggressive for a couple of laps, so my biggest concern was clearing the #22 and not losing speed down the back stretch. I was afraid if I didn’t clear the #22, that outside lane would come and I’d roll into turn three in fifth and have a really frustrating finish. When I cleared the #22, my spirits picked up and I thought, ‘Cool, we’re alright,’ and I jumped in the gas and drove up next to the #4 and I thought, ‘Damn, we’re actually going to win this.’”
OK, so shoot the luck theory down. Now we have a good car, good adjustments, great crew, and smart driver, so if you were inclined towards resentment, well, that’s just not a balanced point of view, is it? So what’s the guy’s future?
Short-term—that is, for this year—with two early wins, he’s assured of a spot in the Chase at the end of the season. For that reason, Chad Knaus declared Sunday that as of now, the team is focused on the Fall. “We’re going to put our efforts into going into Chicago, New Hampshire, the first few races of the Chase. That’s our focus at this point.”
That’s not to say they won’t try to win between now and the last ten races. In fact, he said they could now take risks and go for unlikely wins. “We want to perform well and win as many races as we can. This obviously provides an opportunity for us to go out and be aggressive and do some things that might be a bit uncharacteristic, or unnormal—is that a word?—but right now, we’re just trying to solidify what we need to do going into the Chase.” That means that in March, they’re looking towards September. They’re known, by the way, for weak performance through the summer part of the season.
Knaus steered well clear of putting Johnson’s career in historical perspective. “The thing you have to do, from my standpoint, is go to Martinsville. We need to practice well, qualify well, and then try to win the race.” He indicated that is true in whatever week it might be.
He added, “Our job is to build the best racecar we possibly can. We want to build the most down force. We want to build the most mechanical grip. And we want to build the most horsepower. He who does that wins. Period. That’s how it works, right?”
He then said that with those taken care of, “Then you have all the other aspects of the race that you have to work on—pit crew, pit stops, so on and so forth. We’re not where we want to be from my standpoint. We’ve got a good product, but I’m hoping come Chase time, we’re going to be better.” No wonder they’re so good—they’re never happy.
Johnson, by contrast, was willing to talk about the long term. “If I can keep winning, how long can I do it? Physically and mentally, I’m the best I’ve been in my career. I’m in a great space, and I’m really enjoying going to the race shop, the race track . . . . It makes me want to stick around and do this for a lot of years. There’s no guarantees about when you’re going to win and have success . . . . It’s easy to look at trends and say ‘We win X a year,’ but at some point that stops. It stops for everybody, and I don’t know when that point is for me. I hope it’s not soon. I’d love to get to Jeff [Gordon’s record].” He said he wants to “handle this with respect and class” and mentioned tying Earnhardt’s record, which he did with the win before this one.
And all his competitors can be saying is “OMG. This makes our job impossible!” So you decide: are you in Superman’s corner, or not? You can’t argue with their work ethic, even if you do resent their luck sometimes. Johnson and his win aside, what else was notable about Sunday afternoon at 207 mph in Fontana, California? The race was a tick under three hours long. Average speed was 137.213 mph, and Johnson came home .772 seconds ahead of Kevin Harvick. Six times, caution flags flew, including just before what would have been the checkered flag, as was discussed above. These consumed 33 of the 205 laps (the laps past 200 being due to the late caution, yellow laps and the two-lap shootout to end it). Johnson set fast lap of the day—on the very last lap. Eight drivers had the lead, swapping it 26 times, but Harvick prevailed with 142 laps led. Johnson actually had it for 25 laps over six different exchanges. Austin Dillon had the pole and was top five, then top ten, and seventh on lap 190, but he ended up 24th. He didn’t even lead the first lap. They went three and four wide going through that first turn with Kyle Busch way up high near the wall. Dillon came around second after a lap, with Harvick leading. Finishing much worse than he should have—Truex, Jr. He led three times for 21 laps, diced at the front all day, and dropped to 32nd after starting 17th. He seemed like he was there at the front all day, and led at laps 71, 110, and 124, but his last lead lap was 136. From that point, he dropped to 34th by lap 160 and could close only a couple of spots from there. This was due to the run-in with Logano that put him into the outside wall and damaged his car. Finishing better than most expected—Stenhouse Jr., fifth, the only one of the top seven not to lead at all. He had begun 18th. His climb was due to pit strategy. Here’s what he said afterwards: “I thought we had a tenth-place car and then that last caution came out and my guys made a great pit call. They made some great adjustments and had a great stop. We restarted from the outside lane, which was really good for us. . . . I think we were three or four-wide going into turn three on that last lap.” He also credited adjustments made at the end and some luck, since his car didn’t do well on the short runs, but was much better all day on longer runs. Kyle Busch’s blown tire came when two laps were left. He ended up 25th. He began sixth, stayed roughly in the 6-10th range through the middle going, and never led a lap. He was shown as second on lap 190. Final Notes Knaus added a human element to things when he said, “We do emphasize to our guys that they need to celebrate the victories and enjoy [them]. Whether that be going out and partying at a club or going to get ice cream with the kids. Whatever that is, whatever your way of celebrating is, we want to make sure they do that before we head to Martinsville.” Follow me on twitter @growinguphockey. Right NOW! More Auto Club 400 coverage by Brian Kennedy: AUTO CLUB 400: The Competitive Edge AUTO CLUB 400: TreatMyClot 300 - Just Don't Make No Sense AUTO CLUB 400: "Seams" Easy From The Outside AUTO CLUB 400: The Calm Before The Storm [nggallery id=2016autoclub400jimmiejohnson]