Jimmie made Bristol 'Johnson City' Today
“This Lowe’s Chevrolet was flying!”
The Tennessee towns of Bristol and Johnson City may be 30 miles apart, but today Bristol was Johnson City.
Jimmie Johnson led 81 laps in the Food City 500, including the final 20, to claim his second win in “Thunder Valley” and his second consecutive victory – the eleventh back-to-back triumph of his career and first since Charlotte and Dover in 2014.
Jimmie couldn’t have been any more excited:
"I’m so happy to give everybody at A.O. Smith a good ride on the quarter panel this weekend. We wouldn’t be here without a ton of support from Valvoline, Gatorade, the fans, Lowe’s, and Chevrolet. This track has been difficult over the years and we really hit on something Saturday afternoon in that last practice session around the bottom and honestly, it’s what I’ve been looking for here for 16 years and we finally figured it out. So, I’m very, very happy…Really 18 years when I look at my two years in Xfinity, but huge credit to Mr. Hendrick and the environment and the place he lets us work. My guys nailed their pit stops all day long. Great team effort, just a ton of fun out there racing. This track has always been very racy, but now that we can hunt the bottom and we can run two and three wide and put on a heck of a show for the fans.
“I feel like Chad did a really nice job on Saturday of listening through my frustration and how to get the car a little bit closer, and his open‑minded approach I really think found something that we've been looking for, for a while here and made a huge difference today. Just a lot of fun. There were so many competitive passes and so much racing going on over the course of the event.”
“Fun” seems to be the word of the day, also echoed by Chad Knaus:
“It was a fantastic weekend. We had a lot of fun. After securing a win last week, it obviously takes a huge load off of your shoulders, and being able to come in here this week confident, relaxed, we had a weekend off, we really came in showing that the track was going to be significantly different with the way they applied the traction compound on the bottom of the racetrack, and we knew we were going to be chasing it, so coming in here with a preconceived idea of what it was that we were going to need to have on the race car was really not what we needed to do, and we didn't.”
Further commenting on the team’s bumpy start to the weekend, Knaus elaborated on some of the elements that make Johnson and Team Lowe’s the perpetual favorites that they are:
“The driver inputs in these race cars are ‑ the box that we operate in now is so tight and narrow that the inputs that the drivers use are what change the pitch, the heave, the roll, the longitudinal, lateral movement of the race car. What they do is really key. Jimmie uses all of his tools very, very well. He drives with feel. He's not a guy that says, okay, this is the fastest line, and that's the way I'm going to get around the racetrack. I've tried for years to get him to drive like that, and he won't do it. He's a driver that wants to adjust, manipulate the car with his inputs, and that's great. That's what makes him such a fantastic driver. So, paying attention to what he says is a very, very important part of getting the most out of your race car.
“Again, that's why coming in here this weekend with an open mind, even though frustration did come in a little bit, that's what allowed us to get the car as what it was today, and I think our car was great. I saw him be able to do some things with the race car that we haven't been able to do with our cars here in the past. Not just that it was fast but the way he was able to drive it, and all that was a direct result of what he was giving us for input.”
Just because Johnson has “the feel” he is looking for, making the Lowe’s Chevrolet fly is no walk in the park:
“There's plenty of fear. You're on the razor's edge around this track. I kind of got into an interesting rhythm of using the top of 3 and 4 and the bottom of 1 and 2, and I felt like every time I came off of 2 I'd look in the mirror and I could see where he was and I'd come off of 4 and I would see. I fell into a comfortable rhythm when Clint got into second, and then was just hoping I wouldn't see a cautious. But you've got to drive it 10 tenths around here all the time to make lap time. It's really an interesting track. If you lay off and don't drive the car as hard as you need to, the vertical and the lateral forces aren't in the car to make it turn, so your handling completely changes if you try to soft‑foot it around here or soft‑pedal it. You've got to stay committed and run the heck out of the car.”
Chad Knaus added:
“Now, the thing that's difficult is he drives a race car way different than other people do, and what he likes to feel in the race car is significantly different than what a lot of other drivers like to have. The track surface being the way that it was I think is exactly what we needed because everybody was searching, people were sliding all over the racetrack, they were complaining and nobody was really in a comfortable state of mind, and that's when I think the 48 team excels is when there's chaos. I think between Jimmie's experience, his driving ability and what we can do with the race car, that's what we excel.”
The win puts Johnson just one shy of one of his childhood racing heroes, Cale Yarborough, who sits sixth on the all-time wins list.
“It's mind-blowing. I cannot believe that we're sitting here with 82 wins. That is such a big number. Yeah, and to be seven or eight years old, whatever I was, traveling around the country racing dirt bikes and walking into my first Hardee's, and I thought it was a race shop for Cale Yarborough and then I realized it was a hamburger stand, there's no way ‑ I didn't even really pay attention to NASCAR. I had no idea what it was. All my heroes were on two wheels. To be in this position is quite an honor. But I honestly wouldn't be in this position if it wasn't for Chad Knaus and Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon, Lowe's, all the consistent things that I've had through my career. This has really been the environment for me to thrive in, and I don't know how many different teams Cale drove for, Earnhardt drove for a couple but then Cale moved around some. DW is just ahead of us but I know he moved around. It's just different environments worked for different people, and for myself this has been really I think the only environment for me to succeed like this.
While win number 83 is the next logical milestone and squarely in Johnson’s crosshairs, he was asked about the prospect of becoming just the third driver to reach 100 victories:
“I just ‑ from watching Gordon, what's he, 93, 95? A whole bunch. He had a 13‑win season one year. It just seems too far out there that I don't think that the 100 is achievable. I hope I'm wrong. I really do. I would love to clearly do that. But again, I've always felt that that's just such a big number, and with as competitive as our sport is, the new twist with stage racing and what it's done to our series, that's going to be a hard number to get to.”
Chad Knaus, being the racer he is and never being content and striving to never stop improving, doesn’t see why Team Lowe’s can’t get there:
“I wasn't expecting that question. Yeah, I think we can win every race. Now, the likelihood of us winning every race is pretty slim. But in all actuality, the ability to go out there and win every single race is there.
“I think that ‑ yeah. I don't see why not. Why not win 50, right? Honestly, there's no ‑‑ from what I've seen out of this team and what I've seen out of the ability of Hendrick Motorsports and Jimmie, I don't think there's really too much that can't be reached.
As is evident by the duo’s enthusiasm, even after collecting their 82nd trophy, the thrill of winning never gets old. Johnson explained why:
“Well, there's two parts to it. One, you know, this is what we work so hard to do, and I truly feel like NASCAR drivers are the best drivers in the world, and any time you can ring the bell and win one of these shows, you've done something. You really have. There's that element, and then the second piece, which led to probably some of the profanity, was this place, you know, personally, to win here and to run that competitive all day means a lot to me. I've loved this racetrack from afar, made my first laps here in 2000 in a Busch Car, and was like, where am I, what's going on, how do I get around this racetrack, and it's been a journey since 2000 until now.
“I know we won here one other time, but I think from a consistency standpoint and competitive standpoint, this is the best we've ever been, and I've been looking and trying to figure this place out, and I've come here with the identical race car that Jeff Gordon wins with, and I run 15th. That's where a lot of that emotion came from is more in the personal category today and getting that win.
“I’m truly humbled. I’m excited to win back-to-back races. I’m excited to win at Bristol. I guess we’ll be at Indy testing for the next two days and we’ll show up at Richmond and try again.”
There, Johnson and Team Lowe’s will try for their fourth win at the northern Virginia short track, where this year the race has been moved from Saturday night to Sunday afternoon. Two of Johnson’s wins there came on Sunday afternoons after rain delayed the races from Saturday night…and rain pushed today’s race back one day. Hopefully racing a day later than usual bodes well for Johnson and crew once again!