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Menzer: Johnson had race, boss under control Saturday at CMS

May 21, 2012, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com



Menzer: Johnson had race, boss under control Saturday at CMS
CONCORD, N.C. -- Johnson managed All-Star Race, and then his boss, perfectly at Charlotte

Jimmie Johnson gave himself a real good ride during the Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Then Johnson gave Rick Hendrick the ride of a lifetime.

Caught up in the euphoria of Johnson's record-tying third All-Star victory and more than $1 million in winnings, the head of Hendrick Motorsports temporarily lost his head and tried to climb into the car with the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet for a victory jaunt down the frontstretch of the 1.5-mile track.

Three for JJ


Rick Hendrick said his post-race ride at the All-Star Race was one of the dumbest things he's attempted, but it was for good reason as Jimmie Johnson raced his way into good company.

Hendrick got there. Sort of. He got one leg in and spent the next several minutes with his one leg inside Johnson's car and the rest of his body hanging on for dear life outside the driver's-side door as he sat perched on the open window.

"That was the dumbest thing I've ever done in racing," Hendrick later lamented. "I may have done some smart things, but that was the dumbest one."

Johnson said he tried to go slow, which, of course, is totally against his nature. Then again, he had to go slow earlier in the night to set himself up to go fast and win at the end -- but we'll get to that later.

"We were running 50, 60 miles an hour in first gear," Johnson said of the post-race sortie with his boss at least partially in his lap. "That's as slow as I could go in first gear. I had my arm around Rick's leg, trying to hang onto him. I could feel the wind pulling on him. I can't really go any slower."

There was another concern as well, which Johnson voiced to Hendrick during their post-race news conference together.

"I was afraid somebody was going to throw a beer can at us and hit you in the head," Johnson joked.

Hendrick, owner of several car dealerships as well as perhaps the most storied race team in NASCAR history, laughed and added: "I was surprised they were really nice. Maybe they were all customers. I didn't even get any fingers. Not one single finger and no beer cans."

Earlier ...

To get to all those hijinks and good, clean post-race fun, Johnson first had to secure the victory in the non-points event, a 90-lap affair broken up into four 20-lap segments and one final 10-lap sprint to the finish that was preceded by a mandatory pit stop. At least that's the way the format was last Saturday night. Who knows what it will be next year?

Johnson looked at this year's format beforehand and determined one fact very quickly. The winner of the first segment, who would be guaranteed to be able to come to pit road first for the final mandatory pit stop, was going to be in position to control the event.

The driver had told crew chief Chad Knaus as much in the No. 48 hauler a day earlier.

"I was stressing about what we were going to do for strategy," Knaus said. "I made him come to the transporter and we talked about it again."

Johnson's message to Knaus was simple, before and after the opening 20-lap segment.

"Man, strategy is pretty simple after you win that first segment," Johnson told him.

The way Johnson figured it, he simply had to get by pole-sitter Kyle Busch to win that first segment. Then the rest of the night would be cake, with $1 million icing on top.

"We really felt like the No. 18 [Toyota driven by Busch] was in that guaranteed spot," Johnson said. "The way the format went down, we felt like the winner of the first segment had control. But Kyle Busch and that team, those guys are on it. We really expected Kyle to check out right way. And he did check out, but here we came and we ran him down."

Making history

The rest of the night was stunningly easy for Johnson. He and eventually the winners of Segments 2 and 3 ended up cruising around in the back of the field, letting others engage in risky battle up front while they waited and saved what was left of their obviously fast cars for the final 10-lap dash.

But no one was able to cruise back there longer, take better care of his car, and order up tiny adjustments from his crew chief more often than Johnson. Winning that first segment afforded him all those luxuries, making it a virtual certainty that when the final 10-lap segment began no one's car would be faster and no one would be in front of him to slow it down.

"I can't take the credit for figuring the format out," Johnson said. "I think when the rules came down, every crew chief in the garage realized the importance of that first segment."

So, really, unbeknownst to everyone else in attendance or watching on television, the end result was a foregone conclusion once Johnson captured that first segment. It enabled him to claim a total of $1,071,340 in winnings and tie Dale Earnhardt and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon for the most career wins in the All-Star Race.

Coming on the heels of the historic 200th all-time win for HMS a week earlier at Darlington, where Johnson's 56th career victory moved him one past Hall of Fame nominee Rusty Wallace into sole possession of eighth on the all-time Sprint Cup list, it was admittedly all a lot to take in for the affable Johnson.

But the first career window ride for Hendrick ended up being the highlight of his evening. Getting through that without Hendrick tumbling onto the track asphalt may have been more difficult for Johnson than winning the main event.

"His foot was in the way. I couldn't get to the clutch to push it in to slow down," said Johnson, smiling. "Plus when you let off the gas in these Cup cars, the way the [camber] is, it will start loping or jerking real bad. I was afraid if that happened, I'd throw him off the side of the car. So I had to stay on the gas and keep some decent speed up."

Hendrick admitted one thought did cross his mind.

"I'm going to end up like a busted watermelon out here," he said.

Hendrick should have known better. His driver, as usual, had it all under control.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.