During the opening laps of last Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Jimmie Johnson looked like the driver who has won 83 races and a record-tying seven Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championships.
Johnson’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was running in the top five, suggesting that Johnson and crew chief Kevin Meendering might have a car capable of challenging for the win.
But as Johnson lost positions, the handling of his Chevy got positively evil and revealed a problem Hendrick has to solve to make its cars consistently competitive.
“We were very aggressive with the set-up of our car,” Johnson said on Friday afternoon at ISM Raceway before qualifying 15th for Sunday’s TicketGuardian 500 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). “I think once we took consistent air off the top of it, it just started bouncing and went haywire. That thing was bouncing all over the place once I got to like 15th or 20th on the track.”
The challenge is to find a setup that is fast in clean air without being out of control in the dirty air a car encounters mid-pack. At Las Vegas, Johnson finished 19th, the first car one lap down.
“As hard as we try, when the car’s performance is based on over-body downforce, you are never going to change the fact that the leader has better air. I don’t think it matters how big the spoiler is which throws air up higher and then you’ve got these (front drag) ducts that throws it out wider."
“The way we create downforce is tough. It’s tough to have that consistent downforce in traffic. It’s just the way it is.”
To win a record eighth championship, Johnson and his team will have to master the idiosyncrasies of the new rules package. In the past, the ability to adapt to new challenges has been one of Hendrick’s hallmarks.
“I’ll race whatever they bring,” Johnson said. “I’m here to figure out whatever the rules package is, and I’ve been doing this long enough to have a lot of downforce, no downforce, a lot of power, no power. We have not gotten off to the start that we expected to."
“Atlanta (a 24th-place result), was pretty rough for us. Vegas we had a lot more speed in the car, but when I lost track position as the race wore on, my car was pretty evil to drive. We are learning each and every step. We have been off to a good start here in Phoenix. I know it’s way different than that other package, but we’re learning as we go, and we just have to do a better job and get better.”
LOGANO SAYS COMFORT LEVEL WITH NEW RULES IS STILL MILES AWAY
The start of the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season has brought a smorgasbord of new competition configurations matched widely different surfaces at dramatically different tracks.
Team Penske has gotten the early upper hand with the new rules, with Brad Keselowski winning at Atlanta, Joey Logano following with a victory at Las Vegas and Ryan Blaney snaring the pole position for Sunday’s TicketGuardian 500 at ISM Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
But Logano believes confidence in the new package is still a relatively distant goal.
“Probably not until we get to the track the second time,” said Logano, who was fastest in Saturday’s final practice with a lap at 137.794 mph. “I think we won’t take off as far off, like even when you go to maybe a Texas for the first time, it won’t be as far off as when we went to Atlanta the first time."
“But when you go to Texas the second time, you’re going to pretty much have a really good idea of what you need, especially after you go through a race once and you realize, ‘OK, this is most important. I need this in my car.’”
FORDS DOMINATE HAPPY HOUR ON EVE OF FIRST “SHORT-TRACK” RACE
Joey Logano topped Saturday’s final practice at ISM Raceway, running 137.794 mph on his sixth lap in the session. Team Penske teammate and pole winner Ryan Blaney was second fastest at 137.221 mph.
With nine-time Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick third and Aric Almirola and Brad Keselowski fifth and sixth, respectively, Ford drivers occupied five of the top six positions on the speed chart. Kyle Busch was the only interloper, posting the fourth quickest lap (136.431 mph) in the sessions best Toyota.
Despite suffering from a lingering cold, Jimmie Johnson was seventh in the fastest Chevrolet.
Though ISM Raceway is a mile long, drivers routinely refer to it as a short track because of the way their cars drive on the relatively flat configuration. Phoenix is the first race of the season that will feature engines that can generate 750 horsepower, thanks to wider openings in the tapered spacers that limit airflow to the power plants.