Coming off his top five finish in the Daytona 500, Jimmie Johnson heads to a track this weekend where he’s had success before – Phoenix International Raceway. In 21 starts, Johnson has four wins, 14 top fives and 17 top 10s.
“It’s always great to be back at a track where you and a team have had so much success,” Johnson commented. “With the reconfiguration of this track, it’s been hit or miss for us. When we were here in November, it was really good for us especially from the championship perspective. To come back now, there is definitely excitement and confidence.”
While Daytona marked the first race of the season, a lot of teams say that Phoenix is where the season truly starts and you get to see where teams stack up against each other.
“This will be the first real test on which team and organization has found speed in their cars and been able to use the new rules package to their advantage,” Johnson explained. “We feel good about what we have. We tested quite a bit to get ready for this moment. We will know more about 30-40 minutes into the practice about where we stand.”
In speaking of testing, the new Chase system will bring a different sort of strategy. Johnson says if he and his teammates can each get a win, they can sit on their tests and use them to get ready for Chase races. Hendrick Motorsports is already headed down that road with Earnhardt Jr.’s win at Daytona.
Though beyond saving the scheduled tests, Johnson says that as a team, HMS has tested at tracks that they don’t compete at, which is allowed under NASCAR rules.
With that said, there’s an emphasis on winning and a lot of people say that contributed to the intensity that was seen during the second half of the Daytona 500. However, Johnson says that the threat of more weather was the real contributer.
“We saw before the rain came that we were single-file against the wall just riding. Most don’t want to do that,” Johnson said. “I think the top five were content riding. Everyone else wanted to be in the top five, and then they would be content. There are guys who would try to move to the inside lane and get something going down there but it would never materialize. Then with the long delay and the threat of rain out there, we were two- or three-wide the rest of the night and put on a great show.”
Whether the race will be exciting this weekend at Phoenix, Johnson says that will depend on that happens – but he can guarantee that it will be exciting for at least the first 10 laps after each restart.
“This is one of the craziest tracks, I feel, from a restart perspective,” he commented. “You have the dogleg on the back where you can find yourself four-wide through the center of the backstretch and hope you have it sorted by Turn 3. If we have cautions – and cautions usually breed cautions – it will be exciting for sure.”
This is a threat of rain in Phoenix, by the way, as there is a chance that no practice will take place tomorrow on track. For that reason, Johnson said that his team spent most of today’s session focused on race trim, before runing a couple qualifying runs.
“It would be nice to have all of the practice tomorrow because everything is so new right now,” Johnson commented. “That would be the biggest impact – less track time to work through our setups. It puts a little more pressure on us today to make it right.”
One of the things benefiting multi-team organizations is if there’s no practice tomorrow, they can look at each other’s notes. Beyond that, teammates can lean on each other for advice – if needed. Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. have a close relationship at Hendrick Motorsports working in the same shop together.
“I always just kind of reached out to him and let him know I was there if he wanted to talk about race cars, the team or really anything for that matter,” Johnson said. “With his personality, if you’re in his face a lot or telling him what you think or almost preaching to him – telling him what he should do – it’s not going to work out. In some ways, I’ve tried to lead by example and just do my thing. He is a very, very observant guy – especially with what goes on in our shop. That’s taken me awhile to pick up and understand; how much he pays attention to what I do, how I drive my car, the things I’m interested in, things I focus on. And then being there and answering questions.
“From there, he has done the rest on his own. Between he and Steve (Letarte, crew chief) with the relationship they have… we may have been a carrot out there for the 88 in some respects but the hard work those two have put in and that team has put in has put them where they are today.”
The conversations between the teammates are one of the reasons that Earnhardt Jr. started tweeting this week.
“There have been a lot of people involved on social media – even people from Twitter – who have put pressure on him and have come to me to put pressure on him over the years. It just wasn’t something he was interested in,” Johnson commented. “As sharp as he is and as much time as he spends in the digital world, I knew that when he got involved that he would love it and it would work well for him. For myself, maybe in a different manner though, when you’re exposed like that and open yourself up like that, it lets your fans see the world through your eyes. He must have been watching from afar for awhile. He has the lingo down and is tagging people and replying to people pretty well. He didn’t enter as a rookie on Twitter in my opinion! He is off to a pretty strong start.”