March 09, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
Johnson Finds High Gear Quickly As Sprint Cup Rolls Into Vegas
Brickyard Legend Jimmie Johnson is off to a great start to the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, and the four-time Brickyard 400 winner and five-time Cup champion looks to continue that this Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Johnson, who won the Daytona 500 for the second time in his career two weeks ago, finished second to Carl Edwards last Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway. That gives him an eight-point lead over NASCAR fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. heading into the 400-mile race at the 1.5-mile, high-banked Las Vegas oval.
NASCAR Sprint Cup practice and qualifications were rained out Friday with the starting lineup based on car owner points from the 2012 season, despite this being the third race of 2013. That means that defending Cup champion Brad Keselowski’s Ford will start on the pole Sunday flanked by Clint Bowyer’s Toyota.
An extra day of testing was added to this year’s schedule so teams could learn more about the new Gen-6 race car. That proved beneficial after Friday’s activity was rained out for the Cup Series.
“I’m glad we got on track Thursday,” Johnson said. “That was a good move by NASCAR to give us some extra time on top of the fact that if we did have rain or some issues, we would all have on-track activity. Our car was fast. It took us a few runs to sort out things down in one and two over the bumps, but once we got that under control then we had a lot of speed in our Chevy.
“We’re learning a ton. Phoenix, things changed quite a bit, and I can use Kasey Kahne and myself as an example, their setup was very, very fast there last year. They came back this year and had to work pretty hard to get it. We showed up at Phoenix and were fast right off the truck. Coming here, running a very similar package to what we thought worked here last time, it didn’t exactly work. The front end didn’t ride like it should, and we had to go to work and get the front end to stay down on the car and not bounce up and down so bad through the bumps. Some of that is probably due to the fact that the splitter is a much more solid structure now where before you had some give in the front end of the car and stuff would move. NASCAR added a bunch of bars up there to stiffen that, and splitter contact has a big impact on how the race car drives now, and we were feeling that yesterday.”
Johnson has four wins at Las Vegas, including three in a row from 2005-07. Those are included in his five top-five and six top-10 finishes in 11 Vegas starts. His last win here was in 2010, and he finished second last season in this contest.
Despite finishing first and second in his first two races, Johnson isn’t ready to call this a “dominant start.”
“One-one would be dominant; one-two is competitive,” Johnson said. “We’re around the front throughout the Phoenix race but didn’t have a chance to lead and take control so I would even put that more in a competitive mindset, but we’re still learning. Daytona is its own animal. Phoenix was a very good sign that we have speed in our cars, and I think by the time we get to California Speedway we’ll have a much better idea of which organizations and which makes have the speed.”
While Johnson is off to a fast start, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Earnhardt is right on his tail.
Earnhardt never has won at Vegas and has two top-five and six top-10 finishes in 13 starts. He was 10th last year and eighth in 2011.
“We had pretty good speed right off the trailer and just worked with a lot of things,” Earnhardt said. “Everybody had a lot of time Thursday to really kind of get up to speed. By the end of the day, everybody was running about the same times. We had more than enough practice, really, this weekend so I’m not too worried about what we didn’t get to do today because yesterday was way more than we needed, to be honest. I’m feeling good, just hope we get a little time just to make sure everything is working right and get a couple laps Saturday just to make sure everything is cool, and we’ll be ready to go.
“This place has got a lot of bumps going into Turn 1. They are something else. I’m impressed each time I come here how much rougher it is. That really challenges you to set the car up to be able to get through them bumps, and you might run a little different style shock package to do that where at Michigan or Charlotte or somewhere that doesn’t have bumps like, you don’t have to run that style of package so the setups are getting further apart, I guess, as far as most mile-and-a-halves and we run at Vegas. It does set the tone. Confidence is everything, and when you go to Vegas and you run well, you expect to go to the next mile-and-a-half at Texas or wherever it may be and run well.”
Four-time Brickyard 400 winner and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon is the third Hendrick Motorsports driver in the top 10 in the standings after just two races. Gordon is the original Brickyard Legend, winning the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994.
Gordon drove to victory at Vegas in 200, his lone victory to go along with six top-five and seven top-10 finishes in 15 starts at the track. He was 12th last year.
“When I think of Vegas, I think of a fast, high-banked 1.5-mile racetrack with some real challenges,” Gordon said. “That is what competitors love. They love a good challenge. The competition brings that in itself, and that seems to always come out here. There are some pretty significant bumps going into Turn 1 at this track. You are always battling with getting the grip, getting the balance, but also trying to figure out how to get over these bumps. That was what we struggled with the most yesterday during testing. We anticipated that coming in. It was evident yesterday, and so it’s something that we definitely worked on overnight to try to improve for today.”
After starting off last season with a poor start, Gordon had to endure a regular season-long battle just to make the Chase in the cutoff race at Richmond. He believes that experience has made his entire team stronger and better prepared for this year’s fast start.
“It can either tear you completely apart or make you stronger,” Gordon said. “I think in our case it made us stronger. I think that is just a sign of how strong-knit of a team that we are, how we communicate because we were challenged every weekend with good race cars and bad results. We just kept fighting through it. In this sport, in this day and age, it’s so competitive, so far back that it is hard to find your way out of that type of a hole if you get into one early in the season. You’ve got to perform extremely well, really go on a streak in order to get out of it.”
In her first full season in NASCAR Sprint Cup, Danica Patrick arrives in Vegas 22nd in points – one place higher than her boss, team owner Tony Stewart.
Patrick is returning to the site of her best-ever Nationwide Series finish, fourth in 2011.
“This is a fun track,” Patrick said. “I feel like it is definitely the kind of track where I feel the most comfortable at. High bank; high grip. Fourth in the Nationwide car a couple of years ago was fun, and I feel like every time I’ve been here, we run pretty decent. It was nice to have a test day yesterday in the Cup car, just to get up to speed there; also for me to work on some qualifying the last half of the day.
“Track position is always important. Everybody is so good in Cup that it takes a lot to pass cars. You kind of settle into a pace and you kind of lose momentum at times, and it’s just challenging. Our equipment stays so consistent out there, and that’s what makes it difficult. You just have to get creative sometimes with your pit stops. I know pit stops played a big role last weekend. Whether it’s strategy or not, but I feel like if you have a good car you will be able to pass and that makes restarts even more important, too.”
“Hoosier Hotshot” Stewart is getting plenty of racing this weekend as he is also competing on the “Bull Ring” dirt track at LVMS.
Stewart drove to victory in this race last year, the first time he won a Cup race at Vegas. He has six top-five and nine top-10 finishes in 14 starts. He was also second at Vegas in 2011.
But 23rd in points, Stewart is already 51 points out of the lead. But he’s not sounding the alarm yet.
“It’s so early right now; there are so many things that can happen that I think it’s way too early to be thinking about that,” Stewart said. “I think if you are a team that is worrying about it right now, you were probably worried about just making it in to begin with. I think the teams that have confidence that they are going to be in or should be in the Chase probably aren’t that concerned about it at this point.”
As for the “Bull Ring,” Stewart has a goal of competing in 100 races this year counting Cup, Nationwide and any other form of racing.
“We’ve run six outside of NASCAR so far,” Stewart said. “I think our highest finish was third at Ocala. I think our worst finish was actually over here two nights ago when we finished 22nd. We’re definitely going to hit 100 this year. We’re actually going to be at between 65 and 70 sprint car races right now with the schedule the way it is. That’s not counting three rainouts that we already had. So we have a pretty ambitious schedule this year, and it will put us almost at 110 races total for the year if we get to run them all.”