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Johnson now aims to recapture 600 glory

May 20, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Jimmie Johnson

Despite back-to-back All-Star wins, Johnson still longs for the days of old Charlotte

Related: All-Star results | Minute-by-Minute blog

CONCORD, N.C. -- With two consecutive victories in the Sprint All-Star Race, Jimmie Johnson appears to have recaptured his mastery of Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Or has he?

With a record four all-star exhibitions under his belt -- under four different formats, no less -- Johnson may once again be lord of the $1 million payday, but he’s still looking for his first points victory at the 1.5-mile facility since 2009. He hasn’t won the Coca-Cola 600 here since 2005, during a torrid streak that saw him claim four straight at the track that many competitors in the Charlotte-based NASCAR community consider home.

Next weekend brings another attempt to reclaim the Memorial Day weekend classic, in the midst of a campaign that has already netted Johnson an all-star trophy, two points-race victories (the Daytona 500 among them) and a comfortable 44-point lead over Carl Edwards in the Sprint Cup standings. Last year, he followed up his all-star win by finishing 11th in the 600, uncharacteristically his best result in the event in five years.

Johnson believes his changing fortunes at Charlotte were the result of a resurfacing that was completed in early 2006 -- right after his fourth consecutive points victory here in the fall of 2005.

"We feel like we can find it again, and we're knocking on the door."

-- Jimmie Johnson

“That's really been a part of it,” he said. “We've had decent finishes and been competitive and led laps, but the track is just so different now than it was then, and we had it scienced out. We knew literally what time in the afternoon, what the adjustment needed to be made to the car, and it was like clockwork. Didn't matter the year, just every single time. It's not that way anymore. We certainly want to have that magic because, winning here in Hendrick's backyard and (with) Lowe's corporate offices just up the road, there's a lot of reasons we want to be good here. But more importantly, it's like we know that we've had it so we feel like we can find it again, and we're knocking on the door.”

It certainly seems that way, given that Johnson finished third here in October in addition to his back-to-back all-star crowns. But he’s not alone -- the five-time series champion believes his is one of about a half-dozen teams that can “make something happen here now,” a group that includes Kurt and Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Edwards, and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne.

Kahne “would probably be the guy I worried about the most here come race time,” Johnson said, not unsurprisingly given his teammate’s own run of success at Charlotte. Kyle Busch believed many of the major players from Saturday night will be the ones to watch again next week. The Busch brothers stand out, given that they split the first four segments among them before Johnson claimed the one that counted most.

“All this we did tonight translates to the 600, and we have to pace ourselves for 400 laps, not just 90,” Kurt Busch said. His crew chief Todd Berrier knows his team has to perform at the finish -- particularly in light of Saturday, where a final pit stop and adjustment that were each just a little off sent the No. 78 car from first to fifth at the end.

“It seems no matter how long or how short they are, we’ve got to be way more punctual at the very end to capitalize on being in a position,” Berrier said. “You don’t get a shot at it every week. It’s pretty nice to be in the position we are, where the cars are fast and he drives the wheels off the thing, and he’s going to get us in more positions to come. We’ve just got to make it happen.”

No question, others have the same goal. But the 600 is a much different animal, one where the breaks and cautions aren’t scheduled like many of them are in the segmented All-Star event, and vehicle setups have to accommodate much longer runs and a greater degree of unpredictability.

“In a normal race, we have no idea what's going to happen. We don't know when the quarters are going to come, we don't know when the thirds are going to come, we don't have a two‑minute warning. So having a fast car clearly and having fast pit stops makes a huge difference. So if we can take and translate what we had in this race car this evening and bring that next week, I think we'll have a good shot at it,” said Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief.

“But the setups are completely different, because you can go between 50 and 56 laps on a fuel run, let's say. Well, tonight we only went 20 laps. You may have had a break, but you knew when that break was coming, so if you got yourself into a position where you were running hard and you were leading or running third, you could pull back and save your tires a little bit. Next Sunday night you can't do that. You're going to have to run hard the whole time, so it's a completely different setup.”

Of course, Johnson and Knaus showed yet again Saturday night how they can adapt to changing circumstances -- the format in this All-Star race was much different from last season’s, in which the No. 48 was able to use the rules to its advantage. The outcome, though, was the same. As fireworks exploded overhead, Johnson looked awfully comfortable in Charlotte’s Victory Lane, just as he once did years ago.

“We're working hard to be back on top of things,” he said. “There's nothing better than winning here at home.”

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