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SPEEDWAY, Ind. – Jimmie Johnson looked comfortable and calm taking questions from the media Friday morning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The six-time Sprint Cup Series champion’s No. 48 Lowe’s Red Vest Chevrolet was fastest in the day’s opening practice here and seventh quickest in final practice.
The historically tough 2.5-mile track has been a positive outlet for Johnson. His success at Indianapolis – four wins – is undeniable, but it is also sporadic.
Johnson won three times at Indy in four years between 2006-2009 – a mark both unmatched and highly impressive. He added a fourth victory in 2012 and then nearly a fifth in 2013 when he finished runner-up. Only Jeff Gordon (five wins) has won more here.
The flip side of the success is that three times Johnson has finished 36th or worse. He was 14th and 15th in his last two races at Indy.
And his need to add another win here in Sunday’s Crown Royal presents the Combat Wounded Coalition 400 at the Brickyard (NBCSN, IMS, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is as much about turning his season around in pursuit of a record-tying seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title as it is attaining Indianapolis-specific glory.
“We love big events, that’s one thing about Hendrick Motorsports,’” Johnson allowed, smiling. “We look at the 500 and the 400 and all big races as an opportunity; and are excited for it.”
Johnson was the first driver in 2016 to collect multiple trophies winning the second week of the season at Atlanta and then again three weeks later at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.
But in the last 10 races, he’s crashed out three times and had only a single top-10 finish – a third-place finish at Charlotte in the Coca-Cola 600 . In fact, four of his finishes in this stretch have been 25th or worse. Before a 12th-place finish from the pole position at New Hampshire last week, Johnson uncharacteristically crashed out in back-to-back races with a 35th-place showing at Daytona and 32nd at Kentucky. He’s currently eighth in the points standings, however, he is fourth on the Chase Grid because of his multiple wins.
“I guess last week is kind of a good example of some of the difficulties we’ve had,” Johnson said of New Hampshire. “We had competitive cars all running in the top 11 and in one corner we lose two of them.
“It’s been tough, but I think we have a good foundation to build from. We have respectable finishes in our cars, but nobody wants to be a decent finisher or a respectable finisher. We all want to dominate. And, we’re working real hard on all fronts; from our engine shop, chassis shop, aero, teams, pit stops, and all of it.”
Contrary to what other teams may be experiencing, Johnson said it’s not that his team isn’t trying hard enough to return to form. It may be they are trying too hard.
“And that’s the problem,” Johnson said. “I’ve been at 110 percent and you make too many mistakes there. And I think our team has, too. So, that’s one thing we have recognized and we’re going to really try to dial back and make sure that we run where we should.
“If we have a fifth place car that week, let’s be sure that we at least finish fifth. Maybe there’s some opportunities to give us a chance to win, but stop making mistakes. And, I’ve got to do that, first and foremost.”
Johnson said he was even open to having the team’s “new driver” Jeff Gordon give feedback on the cars since Gordon – who retired last year – is filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. this week at Indianapolis and next week at Pocono while Earnhardt continues to recover from concussion-like symptoms.
“We’re months in, and I feel like all the drivers have expressed where we could be stronger and what we might need, but a fresh set of eyes and I guess it is kind of biased, but versus the four drivers in unbiased evaluation of the car and where we stack-up and how the engine feels compared to others,” Johnson said of possibly getting Gordon’s opinion.
“And Jeff has had a unique opportunity to see the sport from a totally different angle; and certainly watching cars and I know he’s formed some opinions watching other race cars and where the Toyotas might beat us. So, to be able to sit in the car and look for those opportunities and moments, I think will be helpful for us, for sure.”
The recent struggles are certainly an unfamiliar position for team owner Rick Hendrick, who was just selected for the 2017 NASCAR Hall of Fame class. He’s grown much more accustomed to winning championships or at the very least challenging for titles. Recently his team has been challenging simply to finish a race.
But righting the course is something everyone expects. And the trick is doing it sooner than later.
“It seems like when it rains, it pours,” Hendrick said. “I think at Daytona we wrecked three or four cars. And then we went to Kentucky and wrecked again. We were in good shape in New Hampshire, but wrecked again. I’ve been doing this long enough that you can’t stay on top forever. You have to work hard to get back. And I think we’ve made a lot of improvements.
“I think we’ll see some, hopefully, this weekend. But, you never like having a curveball. This is kind of one of the toughest things you have to go through as one of your star drivers can’t drive. And so, the encouraging news is that everybody just stepped up and is working harder.
“We’re determined to work in every area from the engine to the chassis and aero and everything. And the teams are excited. It’s kind of our ‘refuse to lose’ belief. But we didn’t need this, for sure. We didn’t need the wrecks we’ve gone through. Our place looks like a salvage yard where all of the cars have been tore up. But that just makes us dig harder.”
And Johnson appears ready to lead the charge.
“We’re all highly inspired to get back on top of the mountain, that is where we feel we should be at Hendrick Motorsports,” Johnson said. “We’ve just got to clean it up on all fronts. Hopefully we have it all together here and can win.”