Jimmie Johnson said he believes he and the No. 48 team are taking steps in the right direction, just in time for one of his best tracks on the circuit.
Last weekend at ISM Raceway, Johnson hovered around the top 10 — and even the top five, leading four laps — for much of the day before finishing in eighth place. The result was a welcome sight after finishes of 24th and 19th at Atlanta and Las Vegas, respectively.
The seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion hopes for more of the same in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), where he’ll take the green flag from the 11th position after opening up the weekend with the fastest lap in first practice.
“I think last weekend showed that if we have a mistake-free race that we can run in the top five and in the top 10,” Johnson said. “So, we do have some pride in that. Clearly, we’re putting a lot of time and work and effort to get better. So, it’s nice to have those better runs. But it’s not where we want to be. It’s not where I want to be, or Mr. (Rick) Hendrick or (crew chief) Kevin (Meendering) or this whole team (wants to be).”
Fortunately for Johnson, the fifth stop of the 2019 season is one where he has a history of success. In 24 starts at the 2-mile Southern California track, Johnson has six victories, with the latest coming in 2016. With that kind of track record, the El Cajon native is cautiously optimistic about his chances of breaking a 63-race winless streak in his home state.
“There are tracks that a driver can make a difference at,” Johnson said. “Dover has always been one for me. This track has been one. The one thing that is so different right now is we’re back to a package we’ve run two other times this year. We’re on a high-wear track. I look at Atlanta. It did not go well. Atlanta is similar to this place. So, I’m hopeful that we’ve made our car better since Atlanta for this type of environment.”
As the 48 team continues to search for its old winning ways, Johnson’s assertiveness hasn’t changed, but it’s the timing of that assertiveness that has shifted over the years.
“We’ve always been aggressive, but for me aggression has changed to short run,” Johnson said. “When I first started, you absolutely had to be aggressive. But it would wear your car out. It would wear your tires out. There are other elements. And you’ve spent 450 miles playing a chess game and respecting one another and then it was all out and restarts didn’t matter as much.
“Now, restarts are everything. When you get close to somebody you have to capitalize and get by and not lose momentum. As soon as you lose momentum, you literally just stall out wherever that is in the running order. So, I think we’ve always been this aggressive, but it’s just changed to different parts of the run and different parts of the race.”
As unknowns swirl around the complexion of Sunday’s 400-miler with the 2019 rules package, Johnson is focused on what it will take to get to the front and on beating drivers such as Kyle Busch with fast cars and restart prowess — two elements that take on extra importance in Fontana.
“We’re trying to celebrate the small victories, but at the same time if you look at the speed that the No. 18 (Kyle Busch) had on the field and his ability to pass, we want that,” Johnson said. “And we’re not going to stop until we get that.”