Johnson "Ready to Party" at Homestead
Ten weeks ago when the Chase for the Sprint Cup began in Chicago, Jimmie Johnson debuted a new helmet – one that he hoped would propel him to a record-tying seventh Championship, while paying tribute to the drivers who set that benchmark.
“We have had it since The Chase started. I just wanted to pay respect to Dale (Earnhardt Sr.) and Richard (Petty). Jason Beam came up with the idea and it’s been cool to wear it. It’s definitely been getting some attention and honestly it’s just out of respect for those two guys. I am glad everybody has been so excited to see it.”
With Earnhardt and Petty literally on the back of his head, the weight of what Johnson is chasing on Sunday is on the back of his mind:
“I'm not running from it. I'm not hiding from it. It's just truthfully right now for me to do my job and the preparation and all the stuff that goes into racing and being competitive, it's just not top of mind. I mean, yes, the championship is, but it's more about winning the race. I'm more focused on winning the race, trying to qualify on pole, understand in the middle of the day what I need for the car to do, come dusk and when the sun sets. I've been so caught up in notes and videos and talking setups and pouring through data and all of that stuff that the seven is there, I'm happy to talk about it. I don't know what else to add to it, and I am just all in race winning - trying to win the race, in that mindset.”
Doug Duchardt, General Manager of Hendrick Motorsports, has the utmost confidence in Jimmie’s mindset heading into the Championship showdown:
“One of the aspects of Jimmie that's underestimated is how strong his mental toughness is. He savors these opportunities. He looks forward to challenging himself and being prepared for this, and so Jimmie is just the kid from El Cajon that's California cool. I never see him flustered in these situations. He embraces it. He's looking forward to it, and Jimmie at Homestead is really not much different than Jimmie in Daytona. He's pretty even keel through the season. He's been through it before. He's been in these situations multiple times, and I know that he's looking forward to strapping in at Homestead and getting after it.”
Crew Chief Chad Knaus, who has sat atop the box for all of Team Lowe’s Racing’s six championships and knows Jimmie Johnson better than anyone, echoes these sentiments:
“He's definitely as calm as I've ever seen him going into any event, be it a championship, going to a Martinsville race, a Fontana race, whatever race it may be. He feels prepared, and I think his confidence and his calmness comes from being prepared. He's done a lot of diligence in watching films, getting prepared, understanding the race cars, what we're doing with the cars, and that's something that hasn't just happened over the course of the last four weeks. It's something that started weeks and weeks ago. He has had a huge push to understand the team more, be more involved with the team, and by him doing that, it's actually risen the performance of the whole 48 team, and I think that's a pretty impressive thing.
“So he sees the work. He sees what's changed in our race cars, how we've developed the speed. That's given him confidence knowing that when he shows up at the racetrack that he's going to have a fast race car, and that's where that confidence comes from. It's just preparedness.”
The work that Knaus spoke of was a companywide push at Hendrick Motorsports to rebound from perhaps their greatest slump in their 31 years in NASCAR, and Johnson most definitely saw that work:
“I think truthfully just how far behind we were in the summer months. I thought we could make it through some rounds and maybe get to the Round of Eight, Round of 12, but I didn't think I could sit here today and honestly tell you guys that we were a favorite for the championship or had a shot to win it. I believe that in my heart now, and am just very impressed at how much ground we covered.”
Not only does Team Lowe’s Racing step up to a challenge, they thrive under pressure – which turned out to be a good thing in qualifying on Friday at Homestead, as Johnson explained:
“Unfortunately, that first outing we just didn’t get a good lap. Then I was on a great lap and the caution came out so we ended up with an additional lap on our tires. We had a nice pick up there for five or six laps on our tires, whatever it was and ended up 14th. A bit unlucky and we kind of hurt ourselves that opening run and I think to end up 14th on the age of those tires is respectable. Qualifying isn’t my strong suit, I’m much better at racing, so let’s line them up and go racing…What is a championship race without a little drama?”
When the final car crossed the timing line and the lineup was set, Johnson wound up as the lowest qualifying championship contender – but just by a hair. When he learned his competitors would start ninth, tenth, and beside him in thirteenth, Johnson couldn't help but smile, “We will all be wadded up together…Let’s party!”