Here we come Round of 8!
When you’re in the midst of the longest winless drought of the year, there’s only one thing you want to do: and Jimmie Johnson did just that yesterday in the Bank of America 500. It may have been 24 races since the No. 48 last did a burnout, but contrary to Chad Knaus’ radio ribbing, Superman has not forgotten how to burn it down.
Nor has he ever wondered if he’d ever make it back to victory lane, “No, I didn’t wonder, I just knew it was taking way too long. When you drive for Rick Hendrick and have all the great people at Hendrick Motorsports working for you, the great support from Lowe’s and everyone in their stores and Chevrolet…..there are just so many great people behind us and that support us to make this happen. We knew we would get back. Yes, it was slower than we wanted it to be but to be here today and have this victory is great. Thank you to Sprint, to the fans, to Gatorade, and to Valvoline. This is something very special to our team.”
Their third win of the season came in classic No. 48 style: “I feel like the day conditions really helped us. The old track when it was Lowe's Motor Speedway, it was so worn out and so temperature sensitive, so difficult to drive, and this track is slowly moving back that way. Whatever asphalt they put down, it's going to last 100 more years. This stuff just isn't changing. Yeah, I think the sun definitely helped our kind of style today.”
It was Johnson’s eighth victory at Charlotte, the track that used to bear the name of his career-long sponsor, Lowe’s. In fact this win serves as the perfect celebration of the 15th anniversary of Jimmie’s first Cup race at Charlotte. 568 races later, Jimmie celebrated his 78th win. “Not bad. Those aren’t bad numbers at all. I was praying for one when I was a kid. Now to have 78 of these things that is pretty wild.”
When asked if he could have ever dreamed of chasing a seventh championship, the 41-year-old El Cajon, CA native didn’t hesitate: “No chance. I was talking to a sponsor group this morning, and the only thing they told me to do was don't mess with the 24 when I was here, and I spun out right in front of Jeff, and he missed me by about six inches, so I could have been one and done possibly if I had collected him in that first race. But there's no way I could have dreamed about this. To have one sponsor, one manufacturer, one crew chief, being at one team, this is fairy tale stuff. It's been really special.”
The win means Johnson has advanced to the Round of Eight for the first time since the Chase was revised in 2014, and that when the series rolls into Talladega in two weeks, the pressure is off the No. 48. “That is massive. I am so happy about that. So happy to be in Victory Lane with this guy with Chad Knaus (crew chief), we are a brotherhood on this No. 48 team and just so thankful for the friendship and the hard work. Same thing for everybody at Hendrick Motorsports we are really going to enjoy this…We can't sit back and celebrate too much on this. We've got to buckle down and get to work tomorrow and keep advancing our race cars. But this does buy us a couple weeks of freedom.”
It was an uncharacteristically long stretch between Rick Hendrick’s 242nd and 243rd victory, and the 11-time Championship winning owner said it felt like the first time all over again: “Nobody ever gave up, and you know, we know what a champion Jimmie is. We were good here in the May race. We've been good on the mile and a halfs, and we've been better than we've finished. But this feels good. I've never taken the champagne bath in 30 something years, so it was like our first race again.”
Crew chief Chad Knaus made no bones about the team’s summer struggles, “Well, we had a lot of meetings. We definitely did. I love meetings. But no, quite honestly, we did have to have a lot of meetings…It was a good learning curve for us because I think that as a company we needed to expand a little bit, and I think that we have done that. We've put responsibility in some different areas that maybe we hadn't in the past, and I think that all of Hendrick Motorsports is definitely going to feel a lot of responsibility for this victory, which is great for all of us, and I think they're going to have a sense of pride in knowing that they all contributed.”
Johnson echoed those sentiments, and added that in classic Hendrick fashion, nobody ever gave up. “The past is the past. You know, I've always raced for the experience I've had in the car. It hasn't been about stats or the previous trophies that I've won or what's really ahead of me. There's an experience that I have in the car that I chase and I love. The community that's created on a race team, the bond and friendship that you have with the crew chief and in tough times I probably get a little quiet and pull back, and I think through Rick's help, Chad's, our teams, my teammates', everybody leaned on one another and kind of brought the community of Hendrick Motorsports along and pulled us through it all…Really we just fell back on what we are made of at Hendrick Motorsports. There is a culture there and a belief. It was not fun to experience after all that we have been through but we have seen the cars get stronger, better and faster. We were able to execute all day long here. I just really can’t thank everyone enough that supports us and for all the fans that were tuned in today.”
Competition beware: Jimmie Johnson says Team Lowe’s is just getting started: “You get this machine of Hendrick Motorsports rolling and some momentum on our side, we can accomplish a lot, and I think all four cars are showing that…We've got a lot more to show the rest of the year.”