April 28, 2012 | By Bruce Martin
Johnson Ready For Saturday Night Fever At Richmond Bull Ring
Three-time Brickyard 400 winner Jimmie Johnson is hoping a return to the short tracks will end his long winless streak in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Johnson was the last Hendrick Motorsports driver to win a Cup race when he drove the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet to victory last October at Kansas Speedway. But that was 14 races ago and while for some teams that may not seem like a long drought; it is for the most successful team in Sprint Cup over the past 25 years.
Johnson’s Kansas win was the 199th for Hendrick Motorsports, and it appeared it would be no time before reaching the 200-victory milestone. But win No. 200 has been quite elusive.
Despite that, Johnson arrived in Richmond, Va., seventh in points, 37 behind leader Greg Biffle. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. is fourth, 21 out of the lead. While those two drivers are in the top 10, the other two Hendrick drivers have faltered badly. Four-time Brickyard 400 winner Jeff Gordon is 18th, 112 out of the lead, and Kasey Kahne is way back in 26th,,146 out of first place.
The 400-lap race Saturday night at Richmond is only the ninth race of a 34-race season, so there is plenty of time for Hendrick Motorsports to turn it around. Johnson believes the .75-mile short track is the perfect place to accomplish that.
“It’s fun to be back on a short track,” Johnson said Friday. “This track has always been extremely racey over the years, and I don’t expect anything less. The K&N Series race had me on the edge of my seat. I was thoroughly impressed with the racing that took place and hope that we have that with the Cup race.
“We’ve been hit or miss here, so I’m very hopeful that we’re on.”
Johnson has three wins, five top-five and seven top-10 finishes in 20 Richmond starts. He swept both races in 2007 and won the September 2008 race.
Johnson was eighth in this race last year but finished a distant 31st last September after a continuation of his celebrated run-in with Kurt Busch.
The past two Cup races have featured relatively clean racing but a return to the short tracks could feature a return of “Yellow Flag Fever.”
“I think the venues play a larger part in the excitement, the action, and even the cautions,” Johnson said. “We can look at the old Bristol and put that down there. That created cautions. Right now, the sport is as competitive as it’s ever been. I’m not sure it translates that way or the way that some want it to. But the entire field, when you watch qualifying, it’s so tight.
“The reason we can’t pass more often is we’re all virtually running the same speed. You have to be a half-second faster to pass someone or three-tenths at least; and when you’re a tenth or two off of the leaders, from first to 20th, you can’t pass. So I understand why we’re here. And the Car of Tomorrow has brought a lot of great things for us.”
With such tight competition, it would be easy to expect more cautions, not less. But recently NASCAR drivers have been able to keep it “clean and green.”
“I think the change comes with the venues,” Johnson said. “The change comes with the resurfacing of tracks and reconfiguring tracks to make more side-by-side racing. And then there’s also the argument of tracks that create more cautions that some people want to see. From a competition side, NASCAR has created a very level playing field, which we were all after. And now we need to look at the venues and try to put on a better show based on the tracks.”
Of course, “anger management” is essential to keep the competition Cup drivers from experiencing “road rage,” especially on the short tracks. And that increases if the drivers that get involved have a previous history of contact.
“If there is some sweet revenge that takes place and he gets caught up or taken out, you feel a little bit better about it,” Johnson said. “But it just depends on history. If it’s been building, you might head over there and try to sort it out; maybe inside the truck and avoid some fines. Or you just file it away and wait for your chance on track. There are a lot of different approaches.”
Although Johnson hasn’t been able to get into victory lane this season, he has come close. He has four top-five finishes and six top-10s in the first eight races this season. But a variety of circumstances have kept him from closing out a race with the victory.
After winning five straight Cup titles Johnson is discovering how difficult it is to win even though he has 55 career victories since joining the series in 2002.
“Man, there are some instances where it does cross my mind,” he said. “But my mindset from when I started and through the championships and still now, is if you run in the top five, especially the top three, week after week, you’re going to win your fair share of races. And I fully believe in that statement. And although there are times I’ve left the track disappointed with a second or a third or whatever it may be, or 12th at Martinsville because I felt like we had a good shot at it, I still really believe in that philosophy, and I’m very happy with how we’re running and the speed we have in our cars.
“But over the stretch of my career and during those five championships, I think back to races where things certainly went my way. To win five in a row, you need some things to stack up and go your way. But I do drive a guy’s race car that believes you create your own luck. So my mind does wander off into kind of the luck side of things at times. And then I deal with (crew chief) Chad (Knaus), and he’s all about you create your own luck. There are a lot of mechanical things that take place and physical things that take place where there isn’t any luck involved; at least not in the long run.”
In Johnson’s mind, it will once again work out in his favor in the end.
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