NASCAR: Jimmie Johnson Awakens ‘The Downforce’ with Atlanta Win

Johnson's victory at Atlanta may be the first of man under the new low-downforce rules.

Johnson’s victory at Atlanta may be the first of man under the new low-downforce rules.

Jimmie Johnson is back, prevailing in the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, even though he never truly left. Johnson’s win is his 76th career Sprint Cup Series victory, placing him in rarified air by tying with Dale Earnhardt Sr. for seventh on the all-time win list.

In 2015, Johnson also won the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, albeit with a different downforce package.

On Sunday, NASCAR debuted this season’s lower aerodynamic downforce package at Atlanta Motor Speedway, with the goal of making the racing better. And this race appeared to showcase the drivers’ talents, in spite of a “racers’ race”, with lengthy green flag runs and only one caution flag, prior to Ryan Newman’s tire detonation with three laps to go, which set up the overtime finish.

With 200 plus laps of green flag racing, cars naturally are going to get spread out on the track. With such clean racing, there is virtually no package that NASCAR could develop that could make this type of race much better. For the majority of the race, the lower downforce pack created an atypical kind of racing than previously seen on most intermediate speedways like Atlanta. Managing tire wear triggered drivers to wrestle their cars throughout the race.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. evidently endorsed the low downforce package, along with Atlanta’s worn track surface. After the race, Earnhardt proclaimed “these cars are fun to drive, sliding around…Driving the hell out of the cars, I had a blast!”

But surely, the story is the reemergence of Jimmie Johnson, who in spite of amassing five wins last season, was the first big name eliminated from the Chase, when he suffered a rear axle seal failure at Dover Speedway. As a result, we were relegated to not debating whether Johnson would achieve his record-setting quest for seven championships, showcasing that there is no such thing as a lock since NASCAR created its elimination-style playoff format.

28 Apr 2000:  A close up of Dale Earnhardt Sr. as he looks on during the NAPA Auto Parts 500, Part of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, at the California Speedway in Fontana, California. Mandatory Credit: Jon Ferrey  /Allsport

28 Apr 2000: A close up of Dale Earnhardt Sr. as he looks on during the NAPA Auto Parts 500, Part of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, at the California Speedway in Fontana, California. Mandatory Credit: Jon Ferrey /Allsport

“It’s such an honor,” Johnson said of tying Earnhardt Sr.’s career win total. “With the chaos at the end and the crash and wondering about overtime and how it worked these days, I kind of lost sight of that. I remembered it on my victory lap coming down, and I had to come by and throw a ‘three’ out the window to pay my respects to the man. There’s a huge void in my career that I never had a chance to race with him, but at least I was able to tie his record.”

Then again, Johnson defines greatness. After the race, ESPN reporter Marty Smith tweeted out a testimonial from Johnson’s Hendrick teammate Earnhardt Jr., “He went 3-wide in the middle of 3&4 & turned sideways & never lifted. Amazing the car control he has.” – Jr., when he knew (Jimmie Johnson) was special.

If the low downforce races proceed like what we saw in Atlanta on Sunday, expect Johnson to definitely be a key favorite in this year’s Sprint Cup Chase. These intermediate races play right into the hands of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus: Long green flag runs to wear out the car and the driver – check. Strategy-based calls on a 1.5-mile speedway by Knaus – check. More importantly, when does Johnson not win such races?

In victory lane, Johnson comes across as polished, corporate, and gracious in thanking all of his team and sponsors. Perhaps a driver becomes comfortable after winning as many championships and career races as Johnson has, including five trips to Atlanta’s victory lane during his career.

However, just once, I would love to see Johnson stand up and acknowledge the greatness that we are all seeing. He exudes excellence and should not be embarrassed to tell the world. Johnson works so hard to stay physically fit, mentally prepared, and knows when to take the right calculated risks on the track for the win.

Then again, should Johnson accomplish his quest for seven championships, his greatness will be undisputed.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series now begins its West Coast swing to Las Vegas Motor Speedway next Sunday afternoon, where Johnson has won four times in the last eleven races. Look for him to be running up front again.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

 

Atlanta Saw A Finish Between Two Drivers Already ‘Great’

What we saw in the closing laps of the AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway was a rousing battle between two of NASCAR’s greatest drivers – ever.

Sometimes people, fans and media alike, don’t consider Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson to be “great” and they certainly are not yet ranked among NASCAR’s most revered superstars.

Oh, make no mistake, they say – both drivers WILL be, but they aren’t now. Some view them as two terrific competitors who have yet to establish a legacy. That will come in the future.

Yeah, right.

I would like to kindly point out that the future is now, something with which many agree. I repeat, the closing laps of the Atlanta race featured a clash between two of NASCAR’s greatest drivers.

Gordon and Johnson rank right up there with some of the most venerated drivers in stock car racing, men like Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip.

As far as I’m concerned that has been the case for quite some time.

Their slipping, sliding contest for victory in the AdvoCare 500 was exciting to watch – and all the more enhanced because of their lofty status as competitors.

Gordon held a two-second lead with 20 laps remaining but Johnson came charging to the front, clamping on the Gordon’s rear bumper with 11 laps remaining.

Johnson made very effort to pass Gordon, almost losing control of his car in the process. A couple of times it looked like the driver of the No. 48 was going to force his way into the lead.

But Gordon would have none of it. He held firm to earn his third victory of the season and the historic 85th of his career.

They raced hard and clean, indicative of their skills.

It was also indicative of what Rick Hendrick, their team owner – and the only one for whom they have raced – told me years ago when he began to form multicar teams.

“The only thing that is gonna make me mad,” Hendrick said at the time, “is for two of my guys to wreck each other while trying to win a race. You can win without wrecking.”

Maybe he often said that to Gordon and Johnson.

Johnson’s runnerup finish propelled him into first place in the point standings with just one race – at Richmond – remaining before the Chase begins.

Thus he’s in a prime position to win his sixth consecutive Sprint Cup championship. The fact that he has already acquired five in succession, an unprecedented, mind-boggling feat, already makes him one of NASCAR’s greatest.

Gordon is now fifth in points and, like his teammate, has clinched a position in the Chase. He did so with his third-place finish at Bristol, something he didn’t know until he was told about it last week.

Gordon has been resurgent in recent weeks. He has finished out of the top 10 only twice in the last 12 races, with no finish worse than 17th during the stretch.

He has five top-five finishes, including two second-place runs and his victory at Atlanta.

He assuredly has momentum as the Chase looms and that might help propel him to a fifth career title.

Just as an aside, think of this: The Hendrick teammates have won 10 championships between them and the odds are good there will be more.

Gordon hasn’t won a title since 2001 but after he joined Hendrick full-time in 1993, he won three championships in four seasons, 1995-98, and finished second in 1996.

Not much more than a kid, Gordon’s achievements and quick rise to NASCAR stardom earned him the nickname “Wonder Boy,” bestowed on him by Dale Earnhardt.

Gordon has long since outgrown any “boy” stuff. He’s now a seasoned, respected veteran driver whose accomplishments have already made him great.

Those 85 career wins, for example. They rank Gordon behind only Petty and Pearson on NASCAR’s all-time victory list.

Gordon ranks higher that the vast majority of stock car racing’s heralded heroes of the past – and that adds to his established greatness.

Speaking of heralded heroes, Allison might suggest that Gordon is now tied with him for third place on the victory list. He is not a win ahead.

Allison is listed with 84 victories, which ties him with Waltrip for fourth place. Allison will likely say he’s in third place, tied with Gordon.

That’s because, Allison contends, a victory was taken away from him.

In the 1971 Myers Brothers 250 at Bowman-Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C., Allison was the first to cross the finish line.

At that time, NASCAR allowed the smaller Grand American cars – such as the Camaro and Mustang – to compete with Grand National entries in races on the Grand National schedule.

It was a means to establish full fields of cars.

Allison won at Bowman-Gray driving a Mustang. He was credited with a Grand National win – for a while.

“The n one day that victory was taken out of the record book,” Allison said. “It was gone. I’ve always thought I won a Grand National race and should receive credit for it.”

NASCAR’s policy in “combination” races was to credit the winner with a victory only for the series in which the car was eligible.

So, while it might have been a delayed action, at Bowman-Gray, Allison received victory recognition for the Grand American series – not for the Grand National circuit.

Thus he has 84 wins and not 85. However, you’ll never convince him – or, for that matter, his many fans.

But, regardless, what is official is this: Gordon has 85 wins. He’s third on the list. He has earned those victories in just over 17 seasons, an average of about five wins per year.

Numbers like that help make a driver great.

And “great” is what Gordon and Johnson are, have been – and will be long after both retire.

 

** There could easily be one or more surprises in store for us in Richmond, but for all practical purposes, the field for the Chase is set.

Eight of the drivers ranked in the top 10 in points have clinched a spot. They are Johnson, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is ninth and Tony Stewart, who served himself well with a third-place run at Atlanta, is 10th.

Earnhardt Jr. is in with a 20th-place or better at Richmond. Stewart makes it with 18th-place or better.

Now, with the kind of seasons both have experienced, they indeed could fall short. But don’t expect that to happen.

By virtue of his three wins, 11th-place Brad Keselowski has clinched, at least as “wildcard” entry and Denny Hamlin, 12th with one win, is on strong ground.

However, to repeat, there could be surprises at Richmond …

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