Jimmie Johnson looking to jumpstart Hall of Fame career

Holly Cain - NASCAR Wire Service Saturday, Feb 23 678

Jimmie Johnson was appreciative of fellow Californian Kevin Harvick’s kind words to the press corps Friday afternoon at Atlanta Motor Speedway – a nod to his often under-appreciated seven-championship run from one of his elite competitors.

“I feel like, in my opinion, Jimmie is one of the most disrespected great drivers that have every come through this garage.,’’ Harvick said Friday, days after having Johnson as a guest on his weekly SiriusXM Radio NASCAR radio show. “Jimmie Johnson is just a good old fashioned great guy. He helps people and has done great things in the garage and in a race car, out of a race car, and sometimes I feel like we forget that he has won seven championships and all the races that he has won and all the great things he has done.

“It isn’t like he came from a rich daddy or family that had a lot of money. He came all the way up from the bottom to the top and worked hard and had a lot of success and has won as many championships as Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty.

“I never feel like he is on that pedestal next to those guys appropriately. Sometimes I feel like as a group, from a fan standpoint, I feel like you are just letting it go by and not even realizing that you are watching one of the greatest careers that will ever come through the garage."

But as grateful as Johnson was to hear that a fellow Monster Energy NASCAR Cup champion had offered the praise, the seven-time champ politely put the focus back on this weekend’s Folds of Honor Quiktrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

It’s a track where Johnson’s five wins are most among this week’s Cup field. He is the highest driver rating (102.8) and has earned the most top-fives (14) and top-10s (16) on the Atlanta 1.5-miler of anyone competing against him.

But he hasn’t won in since June of 2017 at Dover, Del. – and last year endured the first winless season of his certain Hall of Fame career.

So while he was humble and so appreciative of Harvick’s praise, he deflected the lauds a bit, preferring to focus on the task at hand - getting back into the win column and just perhaps becoming the first driver in NASCAR history to hoist eight Cup trophies.

“Wow, I certainly appreciate those kinds words from Kevin,’’ Johnson said when informed what Harvick had said minutes earlier. “I’m not sure of the context of the question and really the length of his answer and what it was all about, but we’ve had a great run and accomplished a lot of great things; more than I really ever imagined that I would. But, I feel like every driver probably has something that they probably deserve and something they don’t deserve along the way of progressing through this sport.

"And, I’ve had my good and my bad and it is what it is. Honestly, I quit paying attention to a lot of the public opinion stuff years ago. It doesn’t do me any good and I’m just going to keep my head down and keep working. Some weekends I think things goes your way and you get the praises that you would hope to and other weekends it doesn’t and it’s just kind of the evolution of the sport.”

Johnson’s unmatched record at Atlanta certainly fuels the optimism he brings into Sunday’s race. His eighth place finish in last week’s Daytona 500 – rallying from a late race accident on pit road, not of his own doing – gives him hope as well. It was promising debut for Kevin Meendering, the first new crew chief for Johnson after a 17-year, seven-title run with Chad Knaus.

Johnson won the non-points Clash race two weeks ago at Daytona and the positive start gives the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team momentum to build on.

“That was a nice confidence boost,’’ Johnson said. “The fast cars in general, helped. But the 500 itself with all the challenges thrown at Kevin and the crew, there was no better way to test where we’re at as a group than to go through that.

“Looking back, there are a couple of things that we need to kind of tighten-up on and get better. But, my guys are eager and ready to go. We had a good week of learning and conversation on how to handle some of those situations a little bit better. But, we were put under the gun with multiple attempts at fixing the car under that six-minute window and got it done.

“So, I think the guys did really good and especially with Kevin leading them.”

Like his competitors, Johnson said he’s mostly unsure what to expect this weekend at Atlanta with the debut of a new engine modification (tapered spacers), which will lower the horsepower by about 200 HP at non-restrictor plate tracks larger than 1.2-miles in length – like Atlanta.

“I think patience is going to be key in general,’’ Johnson said, adding with a smile, “I know none of us were really raised in this industry to have patience, or even our fan base for that matter.

“Honestly I think this is one of the more challenging tracks for this rules package. I think California is going to be really challenging for this rules package. When you have a lot of tire falloff and the lower horsepower, I think that will just be tougher and more difficult to race and to get things sorted out.

“I think when we go to a track like Las Vegas, it’s going to put on a heck of a show. Just in the test session with 13 cars, I was four-wide multiple times in those little small races that they had. So, I think we’ll have a good flavor of things here in the first five races. Obviously, we’ll go to Phoenix and have last year’s package back, in a sense, with having full power. So, I think these first five weeks will give a good indication of things.”

While Johnson isn’t overly-confident with his Daytona top 10, he was cognizant that it marked his fourth top 10 going back to last year’s playoffs. Having new variables – such as what teams are faced with in Atlanta – fazes him less, considering all the new adjustments he has internally with his team.

But to come out of the box fast and to have already celebrated in victory lane once, Johnson looked fittingly prepared to return to a place he’s had so much success – Atlanta Motor Speedway and its victory lane.

“We’ll see how it all plays out,’’ Johnson said. “This package is so new to all of us. Some are clearly trimmed out more and more worried about single car speed than others and we’ll just see how this all plays out over this weekend; and honestly, probably the next two or three weekends until we can really get our arms around what we need for qualifying and also for the race.”