SPARTA, Ky. — Jimmie Johnson and his team have racked up some serious mileage this week. They began in Northern California, traveled across the country to Washington, D.C. and now are in the lands of Kentucky, halfway between Cincinnati and Louisville.
Ahh, the life of a champion.
President Barack Obama this week honored Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet team for last season’s sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. President Obama called Johnson the Michael Jordan of NASCAR. The next time the President introduces Jordan, he can call Jordan the Jimmie Johnson of basketball.
Johnson and his team are the dominating force of Sprint Cup as the circuit comes to Sparta for Saturday night’s fourth annual Quaker State 400 at the Kentucky Speedway. They are the standard bearers every other team is trying to catch whether they are running upfront or not.
It’s one thing to have the best equipment or personnel. It’s another thing to week in and week out execute at the level the No. 48 team executes.
Johnson is currently second in the Sprint Cup point standings, 20 points behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon and five points ahead of teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. Through the first 10 races of the season Johnson had finished 19th or lower five times without winning and just three top-five finishes.
Think of it as Johnson giving the rest of the competition a head start.
Johnson has won three of the last five races, giving him the most wins of any driver on the circuit. He hasn’t been outside of the top nine in the last six races, including finishing seventh last week at Sonoma after starting 22nd.
"We didn’t get off to the start we wanted to at the start of the season. Even though we were slow, I really feel there were opportunities to win," said Johnson. "Starting in Charlotte (his first win), we didn’t drop the ball. When we had a chance to win, we took advantage of it and got it done… I’m happy that the speed is there and it’s just a little more consistent for us compared to the first quarter of the year."
Johnson ran a total of 64 laps during two practice sessions on Friday prior to qualifying in the late afternoon. He ran 28 laps in the first session, topping out at a speed of 179.444 mph. That was good for the 18th fastest lap. Given a little time for his crew to fidget with the car, he came back out and ran another 36 laps. He didn’t gain anymore speed — his fastest lap was a little slower at 178.071 mph — and for just the third time all season Johnson failed to make it out of the first round of qualifying in the Sprint Cup’s new three-round knockout procedure.
Johnson will start 25th Saturday after qualifying at 183.661 mph, the top speed not to advance to Round 2. That speed was still good enough to better Earnhardt Jr.’s previous track record of 183.636 set last year. Still, he was upbeat.
"Race car wise I think we’re in good shape," said Johnson. "We made a qualifying run at the end of practice and it was slower than our race one. It’s discouraging that we didn’t get the lap that we needed out there and it didn’t transfer but I actually feel decent about our race car. We had a great two runs in the final practice session."
Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Quaker State 400 champ, won the pole position with a track record speed of 188.791 in the final round. He edged out Joey Logano (187.175) and Gordon (186.832) for the top spot.
Kentucky is one of just four tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit where Johnson has not won; he’s 0-for-12 at Watkins Glen and 0-for-13 at Chicagoland and Homestead. He’s come close at all four sites, including placing in the top 10 of all three previous Quaker State 400 races. He was dominating last year’s race, having led 182 laps, before a caution flag came out and forced a restart with 20 laps to go in the 267-lap event.
Johnson lost his lead in between the first two turns of the tri-oval on that restart. He wasn’t pleased with how eventual winner Matt Kenseth jumped the gun on the restart or that he ended up ninth.
"A lot has changed since then," said Johnson. "Our restart procedure has changed and there were a lot of cat-and-mouse games going on through last year. That stuff has changed quite a bit now. So I’m happy with the rule changes and certainly still today, feel that the scenario and the games played there is what led to our issue down there in Turns 1 and 2."
NASCAR tweaked its restart rule for the Chase for the Cup races. The leader of the race still controls the restart when inside the restart zone but no longer is it illegal for the second-place driver to beat the leader to the start line once the green flag is dropped and racing resumes.
Johnson still went on to win his sixth series championship, leaving him one behind Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. for the most championships all-time. Johnson is well positioned to equal them this year.
"I don’t think he gets nearly enough credit for it and I think down the road he is going to have to struggle at some point in his career for people to really appreciate it and maybe give him the credi that he’s really due," said Gordon, who has four championships. "It is so difficult I don’t care how good you are, how good your team is, it’s so difficult to do what they did and it’s very impressive. They are a great team and Jimmie is a great driver and I think he deserves more credit for that."