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.
“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