Jimmie Secures Milestone Win #76 at Atlanta
Yesterday, Jimmie Johnson captured his fifth career checkered flag at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, which leads all active drivers. Jimmie talked about what the historic 1.5 mile oval means to he and his Team Lowe’s Racing crew:
“We had some real magic here for a long time, and then we kind of lost it. So until our win last year, I was like, where did it go? I wished it would come back. I guess more than anything I'm starting to build the confidence back about this racetrack, but I've had some massive moments here.”
For the first time in 2016, drivers raced with the new low-downforce package, and the success Johnson predicted heading into the weekend came to fruition (check out his pre-race comments here).
“I think that '14 and '15 the rules package didn't suit my style as much. We still found ways to win, but I think I had a hard time sensing the grip level of the car and knowing how to get that last tenth or two out of it. My background in racing on the dirt, I think really lends to this package, and certainly at a track like Atlanta today and how much tire wear we have lends to my background. For me, directionally, I love the direction things are going in and would love to see more.”
The race began with an Atlanta record 209 green flag laps, but the notoriously athletic Johnson was not fazed.
“It's so much fun, you don't even think about it. This racetrack is so fun to drive, you've got to be so disciplined with your inputs. Too much brake creates a variety of problems. Letting off the gas too hard does the same thing. If you miss the painted line by a couple inches, the car drives terrible and is bouncing all over the place, and then that's just getting into the turn. Then you've got to deal with the center of the corner and the bumps and getting off the turn. Those laps did go by pretty quick.
“I did find that I was really thirsty, and finally maybe the second or third green‑flag stop, I grabbed my drink bottle and got a drink of Gatorade. But outside of that, it was a nice cool day so I don't think it was too hard physically. I make sure that I cover that base and make sure my conditioning is where it needs to be, but this track is so fun to drive, those laps went by pretty fast.”
Johnson was running third heading into the final green flag pit stops of the day. Crew Chief Chad Knaus made a bold call and short pitted, bringing the No. 48 in for four tires and fuel nine laps before leader Kevin Harvick eventually made his final stop. The gamble paid off and after the pit cycle, Knaus had stolen the lead and Johnson held a massive 15 second lead over second place Harvick. While Johnson may not have understood the strategy, he didn’t question Knaus.
“We've talked a lot that we want to be aggressive, so I knew when he pulled me to pit lane that we were going to be on the early side, and then I made lap after lap after lap and no one else was on pit road, and I was like, are we going to two‑stop it from here? What's going on? I didn't realize how aggressive he was willing to be.
“I really felt like that was going to hurt us, and late in the run I assumed Kevin would just run me back down, and we were able to manage that five second gap. I got comfortable‑ish with 10 to go and felt like I could manage five seconds at that point, but up until then, being the hunted, it's just a weird position to be in. You just know he's coming. You're staring in the mirror and wondering where he's at, and then also wondering if Chad was telling me the truth about lap times and the gap back to him, and it all worked out.
“He's got a much better vantage point of what's going on, and the way I looked at his call, the first maybe three or four laps before I freaked out and thought, wow, we pitted way early, we've got nothing to lose. We've run third all day long. If the gamble didn't work out, we'd still be third. I didn't think there was much downside to it and a lot of upside.”
Knaus explained how soon before the stop the decision was made to pit early.
“About a lap before (we pitted), honestly. We were chatting about it, one of my engineers said, if we're going to go for the win we need to try to do it now. I looked down at the monitors, saw where they were at, saw the lap counts, saw that we had 49 laps to go, knew that everybody was pitting at 40 laps and I was like, well, we're going to see how crazy these guys are and if they're comfortable making this type of call. And they weren't, so it worked out.
“But yeah, it happens that quick, man. It happens really, really quick. Like I say, we were right there behind those guys, but we weren't going to pass them, so I think we saw that it was just difficult to pass those guys. They were super fast.”
The win marked the 40th win at Atlanta for Chevrolet. Nine of those victories came at the hands of NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt, the winningest driver in track history. The win yesterday was monumental for Johnson and crew as it was career victory number 76, which ties the late Earnhardt for seventh on the all-time wins list. Johnson couldn’t say enough about the accomplishment.
“It’s special for sure. Gosh, it's hard to - I entered the sport just hoping I could win a race and keep a job for a few years, and to have 76 and tie Dale Earnhardt Sr. is something I'm very, very proud of. I didn't have a chance to race against him, unfortunately, but today - there's been a big void in my mind about not having that chance to race against him, and it was literally a handful of months away from having that opportunity. So to tie him today, for myself personally, it gives me a little something ‑ it's a little bit of attachment to the great Dale Earnhardt and something I'm very proud of.”
Johnson is a friend and teammate of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jimmie spoke of their talks as he approached the milestone.
“I talked to Dale six months ago or a while ago, last year at some point about it, and he shared with me that he really feels like his dad would have had a ton of respect for me and would have enjoyed racing against me, and we would have had a great friendship. With the confusion of how overtime works, I kind of forgot that that win was 76 and then it hit me after I had taken the checkered flag and was doing my victory lap, so I had to come back around and certainly wanted to pay respect to Dale.”
On the victory lap, Johnson held up three fingers to salute the legend he had just equaled, and spoke of the crowd’s reaction.
“I saw a lot of threes coming back. I haven't had a chance to look at social media and see what's going on there, but I felt like there was a warm reception, and regardless of the reception, I know what it means to me, and I know what it means to our sport and everyone in it working, as well. I'll be good with all of that. If there's some fans that have other opinions, then it is what it is.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave his thoughts on Johnson’s accomplishment after his second place finish.
“You know, I think dad would have liked Jimmie as a person, but he certainly wouldn't have enjoyed competing against him. I don't think any of us really ‑ I mean, I love when we race door to door, but when he goes out there and spanks you it's not a lot of fun.
“You know, knowing dad and knowing Jimmie's character, they would have gotten along tremendously and dad would have thought the world of him. He said he felt the same way about Jeff when Jeff came in. How can you not like Jimmie? He's just a good guy that never stepped over the line with anything he's ever said or anything he's ever did, so I think it's awesome to praise him.”
“I told him on a couple occasions that when he tied daddy, he'd better say something cool, and he'd better tell them that it's awesome for him to tie him, because I know Jeff had the flag and all that, so that was awesome when your competitors and peers recognize your father like that. I'm glad if he's going to win and tie that record, I'm certainly glad that I got to run second today.”
Johnson did his best to rank the win in terms of career accomplishments, and was also asked what it would mean to equal Earnhardt with a seventh championship.
“Well, I think the gamble that Chad made puts it in a special category in the fact that we were able to hold on and get there. And then obviously the fact that it's my 76th and tying Dale, I don't know if it's bigger than my first win, but it's right there with it. This is a very, very special and meaningful day.
“I wouldn't even know how to go there. It would be massive. The six that I have, I know how special and meaningful they are, and if I have that chance to win a seventh and tie Petty and Earnhardt would be just monumental. Today's win in tying Earnhardt for the race wins, I mean, it's really deep and a lot of pride, and I feel amazing from it, so I can only imagine what a championship would do.”
Chad Knaus, who seemed as amazed as Jimmie, tried to put the day in perspective.
“When we started this thing back in 2002, I never would have thought that we'd be here today with 76 victories as a team. It's pretty impressive, and it's an honor to have been able to do it. We've done it with a lot of great people, obviously, with various team members, some still with us, some not. Obviously an amazing owner and a great group at Hendrick Motorsports, but probably one of the biggest ones is Lowe's hanging with us and contributing to our efforts year in and year out.
“God, it's amazing. Jimmie is pretty awesome, isn't he? Let's be honest, he's just a heck of a race car driver. He's a lot of fun for me to work with.”
Team owner Rick Hendrick gave his thoughts and looked ahead, wondering what else the future holds for the dynamic duo who lead Team Lowe’s Racing.
“You know, I never thought when I got in the sport I'd win 76 wins with anybody altogether, and to have Jeff do it and now Jimmie tie him, I really wasn't aware of that today until the end of the race, and I think when you look at Jimmie's career and you look at how quick he's gotten to 76 and he's got six championships, I think you've got to say that he's one of the best that's ever been in the sport.
“You know, it means a lot to him and a lot to all of us. We're all big Earnhardt fans, but it's going to be interesting to see how many races and championships Jimmie and Chad can win.”