By Mike Mulhern
Jimmie Johnson did pretty darned well at the start of the 2007 season. Well, he recovered pretty well after crashing out of the Daytona 500: with wins back-to-back at Las Vegas and Atlanta, and a close third at California Speedway.
So how will the two-time NASCAR champ fare at those mid-sized, high-speed tracks this spring with the new car-of-tomorrow?
“We still have some question marks in our heads, and we haven’t sorted things out like we had hoped, but we’re getting closer,” Johnson said after wrapping up two days of testing at Bruton Smith’s Nevada track and now heading to Los Angeles for two more days at the Fontana track.
“I think by the end of the second day in Fontana we should know a lot more about the car and have a better idea of things.”
At least Johnson has Dale Earnhardt Jr. to help things light: “He’s puts a smile on everybody’s face, when he starts talking about things and the car,” Johnson says of his new teammate. “He just has a great sense of humor and keeps everybody light-hearted and laughing.”
Yet this will be one of Earnhardt’s most challenging seasons, because, now at Hendrick’s, he’s expected not only to win but to win big and often.
So Earnhardt is trying to show his work ethic too.
“He has a very clear understanding of what the car is doing…and that’s something you just don’t know until you work with someone,” Johnson says. “He can break down the corner and know what his inputs are doing to the car. He knows how the car is talking back to him, and the direction he wants to go in.
“He’s not making it up. You can see a conviction in his eyes.
“And that’s what you need in our sport—You need to be strong and have a good feel for the car, and lead your team down that road to make it better. And he has that. That’s something I didn’t see or know of before.”
Toyota teams have been strong again this week, and that could show that their Daytona testing wasn’t a fluke.
However Johnson says he’s keeping an eye on teams rather than manufacturers right now.
“I think you have to rule out some of the manufacturer influence and think of the race teams,” Johnson says, pointing to the Joe Gibbs’ trio of Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. “We know that Gibbs is strong. The Hendrick cars have been good…but I don’t think we’re where we want to be yet. We’re still learning and developing things.
“The one that has impressed me really is Carl Edwards. Those Roush cars have been good, especially Carl. He’s been real fast, not only for one lap but over the course of the run he’s been really impressive…and I think the best car so far.”
After two Cup titles, Johnson might be forgiven for getting a bit complacent. “But every year’s a new year, and I know this year is going to be a totally different discipline,” Johnson says. “I saw a lot of teams at the end of last season coming on strong.
“Jack Roush is going to be somebody to worry about. And I don’t think Tony had the year he wanted last season; Denny had two-thirds of the year he wanted, but the end didn’t turn out how he would have liked. Kyle is going to be fast, we know that.”
In fact the first few weeks of the season could feature Hendrick-versus-Gibbs.
Johnson, though, insists he’s not taking anything for granted: “The sport is so humbling.
“We’re struggling our butts off right now, 18th on the board. So we’ve got a lot of learning. I’ve got to figure this car out.
“There are a couple of things that feel different. The car acts different than the old car.”
Can he sense the bull’s eye on his rear bumper?
“I don’t feel it any more than I would in any year,” Johnson says. “When you drive for Hendrick Motorsports….Rick has a history of setting a high mark, and the company has a lot of expectations of its drivers and crew chiefs.
“I feel more pressure from that environment than any outside environment.”
Well, that’s easy to say right now. But if these new cars handle as wickedly as it looks like, tempers may flare.
At Daytona “as far as the cars on the track, from what I saw in our test session, it’s going to be a handful,” Johnson says. “Typically the cars end up tight there (pushing, and hard to turn in the cars).
“But my car, and my teammates’, once you were three or four cars back in line, the car was really loose and really uncomfortable to drive.
“So I think there could be a lot of crashes.
“There could be a lot of ill-handling cars.
“Daytona always does challenge us over Talladega; it’s just such a different animal. So I expect it to be a typical Daytona—difficult and tough.
“But the fact the cars were so loose there in the test session had me a little nervous. I look forward to the Shootout (Saturday night Feb. 9)…and also drafting practice, when we have more cars out there, to really see what they’re going to do.
“I hope they’re better. But I don’t think they will be; I’d be foolish thinking that. I expect the car is really difficult to drive.”
But it couldn’t possibly be more difficult than last spring’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which had just been repaved, and where drivers had to run on an impossibly hard tire.
“The track seems the same in a lot of ways, it’s just the cars drive differently,” Johnson says of the 1-1/2 mile track, high-banked now, at the northern end of The Strip. “The feel of it—looking for it—it’s tough to get that same feeling back. We have a different tire, and there are other variables in there challenging us.
“But the car still drives and acts like it did last year; that’s been one thing surprising to all of us. We’ve all had issues with the car-of-tomorrow, thinking it’s going to be less of a car to drive. It’s got less downforce…and all these things that make it harder to drive.
“But we still end up with the same race: Martinsville (Johnson beating teammate Jeff Gordon last spring) was still an awesome race. Dover was the same. Talladega was awesome.
“It’s still a race car on the track.
“The challenging thing for us is our hands are tied. There are only so many areas you can work in. In the past, there were five ways to figure out how to make your car do whatever you needed it to do better.
“But now, with the (identical) aerodynamic rules we have—the common body – and the chassis the way it is, with the limited (spring) travel, we’re all boxed in.
“It’s frustrating at times.
“But NASCAR is smiling. That’s exactly what they want.
“So they’ve done what they wanted to do; they’ve achieved that.
“When you’re working on them every day trying to find speed, trying to find things, that’s the challenging part.”