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Big picture is behind Johnson's double-duty

March 03, 2013, David Caraviello,

Johnson's Nationwide Phoenix plans geared toward long-term Chase aspirations

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- You’d think Jimmie Johnson would walk into Phoenix International Raceway feeling bulletproof. The five-time NASCAR champion is coming off a Daytona 500 that ranks among the most significant race victories of his career, and into a 1-mile track where he’s won four times. And yet, in preparation for this event his focus was not on triumphs -- but on shortcomings in the event here last fall.

Not the blown tire that effectively wrecked his chances of a sixth championship on the Sprint Cup Series, but the way the No. 48 car performed before that -- which perhaps led Johnson to ask more of the vehicle than it was prepared to give. Since the reconfiguration of this track in 2011, Johnson has suffered through two uncharacteristically poor finishes here, the latter a crash-induced 32nd-place result that all but sewed up Brad Keselowski’s first title. It all led Johnson to take the atypical step of signing up for Saturday’s Nationwide Series race in addition to the main event, where he finished 12th after battling a loose car.

Nationwide starts are a rarity for Johnson, who has only made 20 since his full-time Sprint Cup career began, and just one (at Watkins Glen International in 2011) in the previous three seasons. During his five-year championship stretch, he built his dominance by focusing almost exclusively on Sprint Cup events, and the historic results led some other drivers to follow suit. So for Johnson to step over to the Nationwide tour, there has to be a logic behind it -- which is certainly the case at Phoenix.

"The way the Chase is settled anymore, you don’t need top-10s. You need top-fives and wins."

-- Jimmie Johnson

“It’s tough to get laps on this track,” Johnson said. “We considered coming out and testing, but with the tire change and with them changing the testing policy for Cup, it just wasn’t going to work for a couple of reasons. The next best thing was to run the Nationwide Series race. I have no clue what I’m going to learn from those cars to carry over, but reps on the track can’t hurt, and ultimately that’s what I think I need.”

NASCAR has amended its limited testing policy to allow teams four tests per organization at sanctioned venues, but for Hendrick Motorsports, far-off Phoenix isn’t on the schedule. Johnson had a 12-race stretch where he never finished worse than seventh here, and success at Phoenix -- which is the penultimate race in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup -- was a cornerstone of his championship reign. So it’s easy to see why this specific venue is so important to him personally, and why he’s trying anything he can to recapture the magic he once had here.

“The tracks in the Chase, we're very strong at. We feel like with the testing policy that is in place now, we can prepare for some of the other tracks that are within the Chase if we want. We have that flexibility. But what we couldn't do is test here,” Johnson said.

“All four teams have to go, and then the tire has to have raced at that track before, before you can go. We couldn't come before. Then our teammates didn't think this track was all that important to test at, so my only way to get more experience, and to try to get a better handle on this track is to run the (Nationwide) car. That's really the bottom line. I'm still trying to learn the two cars, and figure out what can carry over from one to the other, because they are pretty different. I'm not sure I will figure it all out this weekend, but my first time on the track in the Cup car, I knew we were better off than we've been here in a long time. It should be a good week for us.”

Early indications are positive, given that Johnson backed up his Daytona 500 triumph by qualifying third for Sunday’s event. On Saturday, he drove a No. 5 car fielded by JR Motorsports, which is co-owned by his Hendrick teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Johnson is coming off a grueling week, having visited eight states in the publicity blitz that followed his Daytona victory, but didn’t regret signing up for the additional seat time this weekend at Phoenix.

He’s not sure how much will translate, given that the Sprint Cup division moved this year to the more brand-identifiable Generation-6 cars. But as usually the case with Johnson, the big picture is always in sight. Not even all the champagne and confetti sprayed in the aftermath of his Daytona triumph can obscure that.

“The track here is so different than what it was before,” Johnson said. “I just need to do something to try and improve this track. We were probably going to run top-10 if I didn’t blow a tire (last fall), but the way the Chase is settled anymore, you don’t need top-10s. You need top-fives and wins. We need to make sure we are covering our bases, and we are ready for the race this fall.”


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