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May 14, 2014

Charlotte remains building block of Johnson legacy

Six-time series champion has strong history, track record at Charlotte

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Before he was the six-time NASCAR champion, he was the guy who wrecked at Watkins Glen. No one realized that more than Jimmie Johnson, who upon returning to the New York road course one year after he walked away from a frightening, out-of-control crash there in 2000, found someone selling blocks of the foam wall he had hit for $5 a chunk. Johnson bought two. Later he procured the race car, and had it restored.

“My 2000 year wasn’t all that stellar,” he said with a laugh. “The real highlight in the year, the point in time I was recognized, was in that car stuffed into the foam.”

How things change. While that 2000 crash continues to live on in video clips — and indeed, it’s still amazing to watch Johnson climb out, jump up on the roof, and hold both arms aloft in hey-I’m-alive triumph — the Hendrick Motorsports driver has since become known for much, much more. And perhaps the cornerstone of Johnson’s legacy sits at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he enjoyed a string of victories that preceded his championship runs, and where domination at one race track foretold dominance on a grander scale.


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Now, Johnson’s streak of invincibility at Charlotte — where he won four straight points races, and five out of six between 2003 and 2005 — seems almost as long ago as his crash at Watkins Glen. The track surface was repaved, the Sprint Cup Series car changed, and in the time since he’s managed just one more victory in a points event, that in the fall of 2009. And yet, he’ll always be associated with Charlotte, and his victories in the past two Sprint All-Star Races serve as a reminder that the confidence still exists there, even if the audacious win totals do not.

“Honestly, I’d say most tracks I carry that same expectation, swagger, whatever it is. We’ve been able to win at so many tracks, have been very successful for a long period of time, we’ve set the bar very high for ourselves,” Johnson said Wednesday on a conference call with reporters.

“Charlotte has been so good to us. Even though our dominance was awhile ago, we’ve been able to win the All‑Star a few times since. We’ve definitely been in the money and have had a shot to win. I’m carrying good confidence in there.”

Understandably so. Last year, Johnson became only the second driver — joining Davey Allison, in 1991-92 — to win back-to-back times in the All-Star exhibition, claiming an unprecedented fourth title in the process. Another victory Saturday night would make him the first to win three straight in the race. And then next weekend comes the Coca-Cola 600, where a victory would break a tie with Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison to make the six-time champion the all-time winner at a track founded in 1960.

These days, that’s not the guarantee it once seemed — Johnson hasn’t won the 600 since 2005, the final season of his dominant stretch at Charlotte. “I think more people have figured it out,” he said of the track, specifically mentioning Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne. “The surface was so rough and abrasive, we hit on some stuff that just worked. I don’t know if you can find that dominance today, especially with the asphalt like it is. So I think there’s a larger group of guys racing for the win now than when I had that dominant streak.”

Of course, any victory right now would be a momentum boost for Johnson, who is still searching for his first trip to Victory Lane this season. If that trend continues beyond the Coca-Cola 600 — being a non-points race, the All-Star event wouldn’t count — it would mark the deepest Johnson has ever gone into a season without a victory. In 2003, he went winless for the opening 11 races before claiming a 600 title that launched his untouchable streak at Charlotte.

Johnson is winless so far this season despite sitting seventh in Sprint Cup points and being in contention almost every week. He led 24 laps last Saturday night at Kansas before pitting late for fuel and finishing ninth. The new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format puts a premium on individual race victories, since those are what now qualify drivers for the playoff.

“I think some or many forget that, yes, we do have a lot of trophies and I’m very proud of them, but there have been plenty of slow starts, plenty of dry spells or stretches through a given season. But one thing that’s always constant about the 48 is, we’re going to work our guts out to figure it out. That’s what we’re in the middle of doing now. It isn’t fun, that’s for sure. It isn’t a fun experience to work so hard and not get the reward that you want. But that’s life. I love to work and I know my team does, so we’ll just keep plugging away,” Johnson said.

“If we all had an easy button, I’m sure we’d push it multiple times a day just to make things better. But it builds character. In 13 years being the driver of the 48 car, we’ve had lots of ups and downs. I think it’s safe to say we’ve probably had more ups than downs with all the success we’ve had on the team. I take that into consideration, as well. We’re going to work right now. We’re trying to be a better race team. That’s all.”

In that regard, the driver attempting to build a record-tying seventh championship campaign probably differs little from the one trying to build his career all those years ago in Watkins Glen. Even if the guy selling chunks of a primitive soft wall out of the back of his truck — with a sign that promoted it as foam from the Jimmie Johnson crash, no less — didn’t recognize the customer who had been the source of his business. “I don’t know if he did,” Johnson said. “I believe I would remember that.”


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