CONCORD, N.C. – I’m sorry if this bores you but the Coca-Cola 600 weekend can’t go by without a mention of Jimmie Johnson.
Yes, I know you’ve read plenty about him lately –probably so much so you’re fed up.
Yes, you know he won the Sprint All Star Race for a record fourth time.
And as if you don’t know it, you should realize that the Hendrick Motorsports driver is a strong favorite to win the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway this weekend.
Let’s face it, the numbers don’t like. Aside from the fact that Johnson and his Hendrick team have been among the strongest at every 1.5-mile track – like Charlotte – the California native and CMS have become downright chummy.
Johnson has six career victories at Charlotte. He has won the 600 three times, in 2003, 2004 and 2005 – in which both years, by the way, he swept both Sprint Cup events at CMS.
If he wins this weekend he’ll become the speedway’s all-time winner, breaking out of a tie with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip.
Johnson has finished among the top five in about 50 percent and among the top 10 a healthy 65.2 percent in his 23 career starts.
He has the best driver rating at the track – a 111.7 average out of a possible 150 points.
There’s more, but you get the point and why increase the boredom?
Now, there is this intriguing fact: Johnson’s last win in the 600 was in 2005 and he hasn’t scored a top-10 finish in the Memorial Day event since 2007.
Yes, Johnson won the fall Bank of America 500 in 2009, but, wow, it’s been six years since the acknowledged master of CMS has cracked the top 10 during the month of May?
Over that time the winners have been a diverse lot, including Kasey Kahne, Casey Mears, David Reutimann and Matt Kenseth.
In fact, Kahne has won the 600 three times in the last six years. He won it last year, his first as a teammate to Johnson at Hendrick.
Maybe Kahne has gotten as chummy with CMS as Johnson.
Kahne admits he does indeed like Charlotte – but not for reasons you might not expect.
“I get a bit jittery because of the excitement and the feeling of just wanting to go, whether it’s in anticipation of qualifying, the race or even practice,” he said. “But it’s one of the things I strive for.
“I enjoy that and I like it when you feel that pressure. It’s a good thing.”
While Johnson’s 600 performances haven’t been of their usual quality over the past six years, he thinks things are changing – as evidenced by his win in the All Star Race.
“The recent repaving of the track changed things for us,” Johnson said. ““Before, we knew, literally, what time in the afternoon we should make whatever adjustment we needed to make to the car. It was like clockwork. Didn’t matter the year, just every single time.
“It’s not that way anymore. However, the track has aged and it’s like it’s coming back to us.”
Hendrick is easily the dominant team at CMS. Two of its drivers, Johnson and Jeff Gordon, have a combined 11 victories at the track. New teammate Kahne has four, but three of those came in Ray Evernham’s Dodges.
And it appears the odds favor a Chevrolet driver in the 600. Chevy has won the majority of races over the last 12 years and three of the last five. But let’s not assume one of them is going to be victorious this year.
It’s not wise to assume anything in NASCAR races.
For example, there are a couple of Toyota drivers who come to mind as serious contenders for a 600 victory.
Toyota’s record at Charlotte pales next to Chevrolet’s with only two wins, but a couple of Joe Gibbs Racing competitors have shown plenty of strength during the early part of the season.
Matt Kenseth, who won twice at CMS while driving for Roush Fenway Racing, has already won three races this season.
He’s also been named the first quarter recipient of the Driver Of The Year Award. He may well challenge Johnson for the championship.
Kenseth admits, however, that while his Toyota has performed admirably at several tracks, he’s uncertain about Charlotte.
“I really feel like as an organization we’ve been pretty strong everywhere, I mean at all the race tracks,” Kenseth said. “I feel like there’s a couple where we’ve been off a little bit, but one of them was California and Denny (Hamlin) was leading the last lap and Kyle (Busch) won.
“So, yeah, I think our cars have been pretty fast everywhere. It’s hard for me to put my finger on exactly what it is because this is my first year. It’s a whole new race car. It’s hard to compare to last year’s car.
“But we’ve been fast everywhere. Now, whether that is the case at Charlotte, well, like I said, it’s a whole new race car for me.”
Then there’s Kyle Busch.
He’s won twice this season in Sprint Cup competition and should have won a third time at Darlington, where he dominated but gave way to Kenseth.
He won in the Craftsman Truck Series at CMS last week and has six victories at the speedway in the Nationwide Series.
But he has yet to win a Sprint Cup race.
Still, he can’t be ignored.
“The Nationwide Series has been good to me there,” Busch said. “The truck series has been pretty good to me there, too. But a Cup Series win has eluded me.
“We’re definitely getting closer than I was back when I first started racing at Charlotte. I think I have something like 10 top-10 finishes in my last 12 races going into this weekend, so I hope my luck is turning around a bit and I can finally get that Sprint Cup win there.
“We’ve been very close the last couple of years.”
Who knows? He, and several others drivers, might get even closer this year – all the way to victory lane.
But, as much as many fans don’t want to hear this, the fact remains the edge goes to Johnson, Hendrick and, for that matter, any Chevrolet driver.
Alas, as boring as all of that may be.