NASCAR: Johnson after third title, road win
WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. ó After a slow start in his quest to win a third straight Sprint Cup title, Jimmie Johnson is coming up to speed as the Chase for the championship looms. Now, if he could only master a road course.
“When I wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, this is my challenge,” Johnson said Friday before rain canceled qualifying for Sunday’s Centurion Boats at The Glen. “I want to win on a road course, and it’s the last chance I have this year to do it. That’s what it really boils down to.”
Johnson has two shots this weekend at Watkins Glen International ó Sunday’s Sprint Cup race and the Nationwide Series’ Zippo 200 today. It will be only Johnson’s second Nationwide start of the year.
“I just want more laps to get in the rhythm of road course racing. I seem to have the pace for a handful of laps doing the right thing,” said Johnson, who has three top-5s at The Glen. “I’m not sure if it’s being overaggressive, what that really is. I keep searching for it. I can’t find that half a tenth. I just need more seat time.”
Johnson qualified second on the road course at Sonoma, Calif., in June, led 27 laps, but finished a disappointing 15th. His best finish on the two road courses the Cup series visits each year was a third at Watkins Glen in 2007.
“We qualified well at Sonoma and we led at the beginning, but we didn’t race in traffic like we wanted to,” Johnson said. “This race here is very important for the points, but it’s more of a personal challenge for myself and (crew chief) Chad (Knaus). It’s a race that we’re looking at to help us down the road. We want to get out of here with a decent finish.”
Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, the NASCAR career leader with nine road course wins, figures it’s just a matter of time before Johnson achieves that breakthrough victory.
“Every great driver wants to feel like they can win at every track they go to,” Gordon said. “Jimmie is an awesome driver. He proves it every weekend. He’s in the same equipment that I’m in, so I can appreciate it moreso than a lot of people can.
“Road courses are not easy to win on. I feel like they’ve had some opportunities to win and they haven’t worked out. He’s been getting better and better. When we go test, he’s usually faster than me. I feel like it’s just a matter of time more than anything.”
It should be. Johnson began racing motocross at age 5 and has won six off-road racing championships, even in the desert.
“The crazy thing is I do better in these other vehicles than I do in the Cup car. I just have to figure out how,” Johnson said. “It just shows how hard it is to stay on top. We’ve put a lot of hard work in and have established ourselves as a contender.
“Other tracks have been difficult for me,” Johnson said. “I never thought I would win at Richmond and finally conquered that track. It would be extremely satisfying (to win at Watkins Glen).”
Gordon and Tony Stewart have won eight of the past 11 races at Watkins Glen International. With 15 road course wins between them, they’re the acknowledged kings of the road in NASCAR, but having Gordon as a teammate has only helped so much.
“As much as we can talk about what our cars are doing and what we’re looking for in setups, we do all that we can there,” Johnson said. “But when you get in the car and you’re looking for a half a tenth (of a second) per corner and it totals up to a three or four-tenths advantage from start to finish (of a lap), it’s really tough to communicate those things.
“It’s such a small difference. It’s just a little everywhere. I just need to do it more.”
Because qualifying was canceled, Sunday’s field was set by points, which puts Johnson, fourth behind series leader Kyle Busch, on the outside of the second row.
After faltering to six finishes of 18th or worse in the first 18 races of the season, including a season-worst 39th at Charlotte after a blown engine, Johnson has rebounded with three straight top-3s to become a serious championship threat again. He was second at Chicagoland, won the next race at Indianapolis, and won the pole last week at Pocono and finished third behind winner Carl Edwards and Stewart.
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