For two drivers, they know exactly where they’re going to start the Daytona 500 this Sunday. One of those drivers is Jimmie Johnson, who is set to enjoy this whole week with his fate known. He’s ready to take a relaxed position during the Budweiser Duels in knowing that he doesn’t “have to take any big risks or chances”.
“More so on an emotional level this sends a big thank you back to all our folks back at Hendrick Motorsports at all the different shops and departments. They’ve been working hard to get our cars ready for the season. To get a front row sweep says a lot,” he added. The only way the drivers can really thank everybody for their hard work is to go out and stand on it. We did a nice job working the qualifying sessions like we needed to to advance and knocked down that front row.”
Johnson will be joined on the front row by Jeff Gordon, as all four Hendrick Motorsports drivers were part of the top 12 quickest during the qualifying session. They were joined by four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers, which Johnson equates that to strong drivers in strong equipment.
“I feel amongst those eight cars, you have eight really good drivers with the draft,” he commented. “I think our eight cars over the last few years have been maybe just a little step ahead of the competition.”
Though while they were the quickest, it doesn’t mean that they’ll be the eight fighting for the win as Johnson notes, the Sprint Unlimited proved anything is possible.
The lap that Johnson posted to get the front row almost didn’t happen as drivers sat waiting at the end of pit road, not wanting to be the first driver off with a disadvantage. When they did decide to make the lap with a minute and five seconds, Johnson didn’t think they’d get back as the time they were supposed to have left pit road had “came and went”. However, it’d be fine with him if they hadn’t as that’d make him the pole sitter based on his quickest time in the previous round.
“As we were making the lap, we got up to speed, through the gears, covered so much territory, they’re giving me my cues, I think most are going to make it and I’m in a position where I’m not going to make it,” Johnson commented. “We knew what the risks were. In order to get the pole, you’ve got to take a big chance. That could be front row or 12th. But 12th at a plate track is not the end of the world. We were willing to take the risk and gamble to be there. We made it around faster than we could. I thought I was out. I thought I was going to miss the cutoff on the time.
“It was very easy for me to wait the majority of that time because I thought they were going to run the clock down and no one was going to get a timed lap. At one point I’m sitting there thinking, Sweet, let’s wait each other out. I’m going to end up with pole, no third session.”
While there was some interest in having multiple cars on the track at a time, the group qualifying format was highly criticized by drivers throughout the session. Johnson commented that they implemented the format to “create the most interest” so it’s the viewership numbers that will matter at the end of the day.
“I guess maybe we should look at viewership numbers and attendance numbers to see if this format supports the risks that the teams are taking, drivers are taking in the cars,” he explained. “On a side note, they’re probably happy there wasn’t any testing. If we had any more days of single-car testing in the cars they’d really be mad, the guys that tested today. We say all that, we’re frustrated about today, but we got to race on Thursday. That doesn’t seem to bother people. Maybe it’s just because it’s always been there. So trying to think about the car owners, the expenses that are into all of this, that Thursday race could be frowned upon in a certain situation.”
Johnson added that he doesn’t know what would be the right format, nor does he have the best view point as he’s trying to figure out what’s right for the sport.
“That’s why I go back to stats. Not trying to take a soft way out,” he commented. “At some point in time in order to grow the sport, somebody has to be unhappy. I don’t know where that falls. Hopefully we can look at facts and stats and say, yes, this is better and it is worth the five cars we lost. If it didn’t move the needle, then we should try to rethink things and the five cars we lost wouldn’t be worth it.”
Johnson then went on to say later in the media session, “We were bitching then, we’re bitching now, aren’t we? Must be racing.” He also added that for those complaining, they have to remember that this came about due to the drivers enjoying this type of system in a practice session at Talladega.
“f I remember right, everybody loved that practice session, how we had to race for our lap time. Then that’s the stuff that NASCAR heard. Then group qualifying came into play,” he recalled. “So after a bunch of positive input through a practice session that led to a rule, now we’re having second thoughts.
“I don’t know how we keep everybody happy. It’s just a tough, tough balance.