Despite setup issues, Johnson's 600 shot bright
May 24, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
Reigning champ has yet to fully adjust to new, tighter setup rules package
Jimmie Johnson doesn't need any reminders. He knows his Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet has failed to make its way into the winner's circle this season, an unusual occurrence for a driver and team that have won six NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships, including five in a row from 2006-10.
He also knows that during many of those championship runs, Charlotte Motor Speedway, site of Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, has been a safe haven of sorts. Six of his 66 career Cup wins have come at the 1.5-mile facility, including three in the 400-lap endurance contest held on the eve of the Memorial Day holiday.
His average finishing position of 11.6 at CMS isn’t one of his best -- but that's more of a sign of how incredibly strong he has been at other venues. Among his peers, his Charlotte results are third best.
The race may be longer this week, he said, but "it's not tremendously different anymore.
"The big thing you need to stay aware of," Johnson said, "is the track changing. That’s the biggest issue that we’ll deal with -- starting in the day and finishing late at night.
"I think maybe toward the start of my career we were a little bit worried about equipment and managing equipment. But those all seem to be distant memories now and you can really run every lap like it's the last."
While the cars may be closer to bulletproof, driver fitness has become more important. That's one area where Johnson shines. A week earlier, he began his morning by winning his age group in a local triathlon, hours before heading to CMS to compete in the annual Sprint All-Star race.
"Drivers' fitness and hydration is kind of a player in there ... and you might see a little bit of fatigue at the end," Johnson, 38, said. "I feel like I've got that base covered if it does come down to that.
"You've got a lot of opportunities to work on your car and that's what I'll tell myself all night long. If things don't go our way, if we're caught in the pits when a caution comes out, or something doesn't work in our favor, you've got 100 more miles to sort things out. A 500-mile race is already long. And now you've got 100 more to work on it. You've just got to keep your head in the game and focus on being in the game longer."
Offseason rule changes have re-defined chassis setups, which in turn have allowed some teams to get up to speed quicker.
It's a puzzle Johnson and Knaus have yet to solve, although his previous starts this season haven’t been as bad as one might be led to believe. He enters this week's race, the 12th of 36, seventh in points.
"Yeah, that's definitely what we've been dealing with," Johnson said when asked if the tighter set-ups have proven problematic.
"We develop a balance of a car in practice by ourselves in single car runs; and then in traffic situations (we) find that balance is just too uncomfortable to drive. So we're trying to trade off single-car speed versus how the car handles in traffic.
"I do like a loose race car ... and yes, I'm not the best driver of a tight race car. A lot of tools have been taken away from us to help the car turn. So it's something that I'm trying to adapt to and sort out.
"There are always different challenges in this sport and I know that we'll get it."
Whether that takes place this weekend or not remains to be seen. But for now, Johnson clearly likes his chances.
For the first time this year, he will start from the pole, having raced his way to the top spot on Thursday with a final-session lap of 194.911 mph.
Alongside will be Team Penske's Brad Keselowski, the 2012 Cup champion. Hendrick teammate Kasey Kahne, Stewart-Haas Racing's Danica Patrick and Clint Bowyer of Michael Waltrip Racing will start third through fifth.
Points leader Jeff Gordon, ailing from back spasms on Saturday, chose to sit out the day's final practice, and will begin his quest for a sixth Charlotte victory from the 27th starting spot.
Defending race winner Kevin Harvick will start 11th.