By Mike Mulhern
Gee, now, Jimmie Johnson hasn’t won a Cup tour race in how many weeks now?
Well, he’s certainly come to the right place to make something happen. Not only was his win here last year – on that new pavement and rock-hard tire – one of the toughest races of the season, it was his third in a row at Bruton Smith’s Nevada track up on Las Vegas Blvd.
Four in a row?
Johnson may have had a dismal Daytona, but he was hot at Fontana until Carl Edwards’ closing surge. So maybe the books here are right in putting the two-time champ at the top of the list. After all this Dodge 400 is a car-of-tomorrow/today race, like all this season, and car owner Rick Hendrick has had more than his share of success in these winged-cars.
But then so has car owner Jack Roush, and the Ford man may still have a chip on his shoulder about this whole new car debate…and about Toyota’s apparent edge this season. So the early line here is Hendrick’s Johnson and Jeff Gordon versus Roush’s Edwards and Matt Kenseth, versus Toyota’s Kyle Busch…and maybe Tony Stewart, who had an oddly off California race but who has now won two straight Nationwide (Busch) events, and third Joe Gibbs teammate Denny Hamlin, who has had fast iron but bad luck so far.
One of the biggest surprises so far this early season has been Kasey Kahne, now with the Budweiser sponsorship and all that on his shoulders. Kahne was a big winner two years ago, but last season was a disaster. Kahne and the Ray Evernham-George Gillett operation may be finally turning the corner. And since they run Dodges they may be the men to keep an eye on.
“We were definitely disappointed after Daytona,” Johnson concedes. “We qualified on the pole, and then just didn’t have the car we needed, and the speed we needed, in the 500 itself.
“Then we crashed.
“And California, we were really concerned about that event (because he hadn’t tested that well there in January). But through the course of the limited practice we had, we found some things and really got a good direction with the setup. And we had a great race, over the two days we raced, and got a decent finish.
“We still have some room to go with the setup, but having a good performance with a car that was really, really loose, going into Las Vegas we’ll certainly be able to challenge.
“It’s so early in the season, and the team’s trying to get into a rhythm, I’m trying to get into a rhythm.
“At this point of the season, it’s about hitting your stride.
“But it’s going to be tough, because I see a lot of fast cars. And I know teams are going to be smarter next week after this opening round of downforce racing.”
Next week is another very fast mid-sized track, Atlanta, and the men who are strong in these three events should have a head start on the rest. And playing catch-up in this sport isn’t easy. Just ask Roush, whose teams got off to a very, very slow start in 2007 and took most of the first half of the season just to get back in the game.
Then there is the points race to consider. Sure, it’s a long time from here till the Richmond cutoff in September, but it was only a couple years ago that the tour’s top three finishers – champ Stewart and runner-ups Edwards and Greg Biffle – all failed to make the cut the next season.
As awkward as these new cars can be (though they do seem to perform better than anticipated), drivers may go conservative for a while – that surely appeared to be the case Monday at California Speedway, where most of the men drove like they just wanted to get out of town without any more incidents.
“We try to stay calm and relaxed, but we are aware of where we are in the points,” Johnson frets. “The last thing we want to do is get off to a slow start. And I look at my teammates Casey Mears and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the situation they’re in at after the crashes, and that’s a position we didn’t want to find ourselves in. If you get behind early, it’s really tough to make up time.
“So I’m breathing a little easier after the California race; that was a track we were pretty nervous about.
“We try not to panic too much, but I’d be lying if I said we weren’t worried when we left Daytona. That’s just our mindset: We’re worried about every point.”
And that’s precisely why some in the sport, like Bruton Smith and promoter Humpy Wheeler insist there is simply too much emphasis on the tour championship, too much worry about each point, and not enough incentive to drive for a win every weekend.
So, after the Daytona plate race and the California straight race, how does Johnson size up the competition and this new car?
“The make is much less important, because in aero they’re all the same,” Johnson says. “But it seems there are some brands with a little more horsepower, based on numbers we all saw in Daytona.
“We still have some room to go with our Chevrolet engines to build more power and reliability. We were down a little bit, by the numbers we saw in Daytona.”
And Gordon’s blown engine the last lap Monday, and a few other engine problems the Hendrick camp has had, create a bit of nervousness.
“When we get back to the short tracks (like Bristol in two weeks), we hope what we had last year still works,” Johnson says.
“But these intermediate tracks are all new for every team. So it’s a race, between teams, to establish dominance early in the season.
“With California, Vegas, the other four or five races from now, we can form an opinion as to what team is the strongest.”
One significant issue: teams still need a big stockpile of cars back in their shop, even though much of the car-design variations teams had in the past are now history with this very-common-template winged car.
“I wouldn’t say the design of our Vegas car is any different than our California car, but it boils down more to the fact you can’t count on a car surviving an event (and being race-ready for the following week). You need to have a car sitting there ready to go, dedicated for that next event.
“There was no damage to our California car, and we could technically race it again. But with all the travel, and all that’s going on, it would be impossible to do it. So we still have cars dedicated for Vegas and for the Phoenix test (this coming Monday and Tuesday).
“Not that they were built solely for those tracks but they’re dedicated to those slots.
“And we still have road-course cars, short-track cars, speedway cars.”
The new car was in part designed to make for better racing, closer racing, more passing. But so far that hasn’t panned out. And Johnson and Gordon both say they were surprised at the follow-the-leader racing at California Speedway.
“It was a surprise to me to see things spread out so much up front,” Johnson says. “I expected a lot more cars up there.”
And track position made much more of a difference than most drivers and crew chiefs anticipated, which would be a very worrisome trend if it holds up in the coming weeks. “Granted, there were a lot of lead changes,” Johnson says of California, “but one guy would get the lead and lead until the next pit stop, and then the next guy would lead to the next pit stop.
“With the old car (now obsoleted by NASCAR), the gap was closer from first to 43rd.
“The reason the (new) cars are so loose is the (less) downforce in the car makes it extremely tight. To run a decent speed, we loosen the car up so much just to make it rotate through the center of the turn, that the entry and the exit are really a handful.
“On a technical side, one of the toughest issues we deal with right now is the front (shock-and-spring) travel; we now have half of that (from the old car). So to get the car to ride right and handle it’s really difficult. Not only does the driver struggle with corner speed and his senses, it’s very difficult to know what the car’s doing under you.
The first men to get a mental handle on all that will have a big edge, Johnson says.