Why Jimmie Johnson dominates at Dover (and other places, too)
Jimmie Johnson won again at Dover in last Sunday’s AAA 400, extending his own record number of wins at the Monster Mile to 11 while also tying NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough for sixth on the all-time win list with 83.
How is he so dominant at Dover? Heck, as he goes after what would be a record eighth NASCAR Premier Series championship, how is he so dominant, period?
Let us let Johnson and two of those who know him best – the crew chief on his No. 48 Chevrolet, Chad Knaus, and his car owner at Hendrick Motorsports, Rick Hendrick – lay out the many reasons why.
There is no question Dover is a track that obviously is right in Johnson’s wheelhouse – and he’s always going to be good there. With its 24-degree banking in the turns, cars actually sail a little off the ground in the corners and land roughly, making it one of the most physically-demanding races over the course of a long day.
Johnson, whose rigorous workout regimen is well documented, is well suited for the mental and physical challenge.
“This is probably I would say his best track … I think because of the banking and the way the car lands and you have to run the car loose, which Jimmie likes,” Hendrick said. “And Chad, they've worked together here so many times, you know, you can just be in the top 5 and have a shot at the end. I didn't like for them to have to start in the rear (in Sunday’s race after a rear-gear change), but he's got a pretty good record of coming from the back, so it was a great day.”
Yarborough, the only other driver besides Johnson to win three consecutive championships, had a reputation as a fierce competitor. While Johnson may come off as a much kinder, gentler soul away from the competitive arena, Hendrick said comparisons to the two on the track are valid.
“You know, I watched Cale,” Hendrick said. “He was one of the toughest, hardest racers that I ever watched race – fearless, drove the car over the edge -- and Jimmie does the same thing. But Jimmie makes it look smooth.
“I guess I like (former NFL coach Bill) Parcells' quote, ‘You are what your record says you are.’ The way I remember Cale, they're a little bit different in their approach, but their record is the same.”
No matter what happens – like being sent to the rear of the field for the start of Sunday’s race because of a gear change – nothing seems to rattle the unflappable Johnson. Same goes for Knaus.
It also helps that the Hendrick equipment he’s in is top-notch and such an unexpected setback related to a parts failure rarely occurs.
“It was obviously unfortunate, and Mr. Hendrick and I were talking (Saturday) night about why we had to change the gear and what happened,” Knaus said. “Quite honestly, over the course of my career, I think we've only had maybe four or five gear failures, and if you really start to look at that and the races that we've had at Hendrick Motorsports and what we've done, that's a pretty small emergency. So we'll take that on the chin if we need to and move on.”
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Playing the stage(s)
Knaus and Johnson already seem to be ahead of most of their Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competitors when it comes to understanding how best to work the new “stage racing” to their advantage.
That is a credit to mostly Knaus, but he says his philosophy is stone-cold simple.
“I understand the stages and I understand how it all works,” Knaus said. “We come to the racetrack to try to win everything that we possibly can. We want to win practice. We want to sit on the pole for qualifying. We want to win every stage, and we want to win the race. So if there is a checkered flag to be had, the 48 is going to the racetrack to try to capture it.
“To start last, it's kind of ironic, but Jimmie and I and the engineers were talking about starting at the rear of the field and how stage racing has quite honestly helped the guys that have that deficit. And we play that. We felt like the strategy was going to work out for us.”
Johnson is the best at passing other cars. He will tell you he isn’t good at the bump-and-run passing technique some others might utilize on short tracks, but no one is more adept at passing cars cleanly no matter where they’re racing.
“I've always been better at passing people,” Johnson said. “I think our stats from qualifying versus race wins really show that, and it's frustrating, we live in an environment where qualifying needs to be a priority and we need better pit-stall picks, but you put that rabbit out in front of me and I'll chase it down. It's just the way I've always been.”
Johnson’s confidence behind the wheel and when interacting with his teammates is contagious, especially at a place like Dover where they’ve had so much success.
“I think you're always more comfortable going somewhere where you've been successful and you've got a good history,” Knaus said. “You know, there's venues that you go to, and if any of you guys (in the media) have ever played sports or any type of competition, you know that there's a time when you walk in the door and you feel like you've got it or you've got an opportunity.
“I can tell you when the 48 team and Jimmie Johnson roll into this racetrack, everybody is on their tippy toes and their chests are puffed up, and that comes from Jimmie's experience, Jimmie's ability to adapt.”
“When I was watching Kyle (Larson) pull away from me with five to go, I'm going, all right, second is not bad, and then something in my mind said, this thing isn't over. They're not over until the checkered falls,” Johnson said. “About that time we go into Turn 1 and I see the 38 (car) blow a right-front tire and hammer the fence, and it's like, ‘Here we go, here's our chance.’ “
Johnson will do just about anything short of wrecking somebody to win if he’s in position to battle for it. That’s how he beat Larson on the final overtime restart at Dover for the victory.
And it’s not always the same thing, plus he will never apologize for it.
“I did everything I could to beat him, laid back, went forward. I laid back early, went forward late,” Johnson said. “He jumped. He's the leader, he's supposed to jump first. I just made sure I didn't jump before him. But when it mattered, I was actually ahead of him by a couple inches. They can protest all they want. I got the trophy. I did everything I could to beat him, and I did it.”
They say NFL defensive backs need a short memory. Maybe they could learn something from Johnson, who only a week before Dover was in position to win the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and ran out of gas with just two laps left.
There certainly was no letdown carryover from that displayed at Dover, and Johnson said he doesn’t want to change Knaus’ approach to race strategy.
“I think at the root of our opportunities to win have been Chad's aggressive calls, and the fact that we've won a couple races gives him the freedom to really swing hard and take chances,” Johnson said. “We stayed out on the track when others went to pit road later stages of the race (at Dover), and that really turned out well for us. He made the audible at the 600 when everybody hit pit road, ‘Hey, let's try.’
“It's nice to be in this position to have a couple wins to know that we're in that top 16 (for the playoffs) and to take more chances to win because everything is about that trophy. To be in contention week in and week out like we have been makes me very proud, and then to see his aggressive calls makes it a lot of fun.”
Like most drivers these days with these Cup cars, once he’s in clean air, forget it. He’s gone.
And that’s exactly what happened after he got clear of Larson on the final restart at Dover.
“Once I heard clear, I took a deep breath … ," Johnson said. " "I hadn't been in clean air yet to know what my car would do, and I knew how hard it was to pass the 42 (of Larson) or the 78 (of Martin Truex Jr earlier in the race). So I was optimistic, but knew I needed to be on my game for those final two laps.”
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Remember the El Cajon couch
Johnson is humble and a master at keeping everything in proper perspective while remembering where he came from and respecting the rich history of the sport.
Asked what the meaning was behind wearing a helmet that was painted in tribute to Yarborough at Dover, Johnson replied: “The meaning? To remember that old, dirty couch I was sitting on in El Cajon, California, with my parents, as a kid. We didn't want to turn the A/C on because it cost too much. So we were sweating out in 100-whatever-degree heat out in El Cajon and sitting on the couch and pulling for that 28 (of Yarborough while watching him race on television).
“To tie him is just mind-blowing. I was very fortunate to have a similar experience when I tied him with the three consecutive championships, and he surprised me at the banquet, but to tie him at 83 wins, I swear to you, I only dreamed of winning a race, and to have 83 and to tie him is just absolutely mind-blowing.”
There also is the simple matter that Johnson has by now established himself as the greatest NASCAR driver of this generation, and has entered the conversation as possibly the greatest of all time.
That made Hendrick scoff at the notion that Johnson has “a golden horseshoe” up his you-know-what, as second-place finisher Kyle Larson jokingly suggested after Sunday’s race.
“You know, if you look at his record of the championships and the wins and the different tracks and the competition that's out there today, I don't know how you can be lucky 83 times in seven championships,” Hendrick said. “I think you have to have some racing luck every now and then. You get one that maybe someone else fumbled the ball or luck went your way, but if you look at his record and what he's done and the championships and the races he's won, you know, you'd have to say he's one of the greatest that's ever raced in the sport.”