Jimmie Johnson brings vivid memories in return to home track

Reid Spencer - NASCAR Wire Service Friday, Feb 28 522
Jimmie Johnson brings vivid memories in return to home track NK Photography Photo

Eighteen years ago, Jimmie Johnson came to Auto Club Speedway with no job security.

This weekend, Johnson returns to the two-mile track for his last ride as a full-time NASCAR Cup Series driver with 83 victories, seven championships and nothing left to prove.

That wasn’t the case in 2002 in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports. Despite assurances to the contrary, Johnson thought he was on a short leash with the organization—even though he had won the pole for the Daytona 500 as a rookie and followed with another pole at Talladega in the ninth race of the season.

A week later, Johnson came to Fontana and qualified fourth for the NAPA Auto Parts 500. He led three times for 62 laps, the final stint a 14-lap run to the checkered flag after the final caution. In the 10th start of his rookie season—and his 13th Cup start overall—Johnson earned his first victory at the speedway closest to his childhood home in El Cajon.

“That’s the day I knew I was going to be employed,” Johnson quipped during a Friday visit to the media center at the speedway, site of Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

“Jeff Gordon handed me all of his championship equipment from the year before, and they told me they’d be patient and I had time, but in my heart I didn’t think that was the case, and I knew I needed to win. So to leave here with a trophy meant that I’d have a job for a few years, and I was pretty stoked about that.”

To honor Johnson on his “farewell tour,” the speedway commissioned a mural of the seven-time champ, and wife Chandra and daughters Genevieve and Lydia will wave the green flag to start the race after a five-wide salute to the driver.

“Just really excited for it,” Johnson said. “This year, we’re really trying hard to enjoy as much as we can and really take any opportunity that comes our way. This is certainly a different one for us and my family. I’m very thankful that the track came to us with that suggestion to get my family up there in the stands. 

“I think pre-race will be full of emotions. They will have a chance to come across the stage with me and be introduced with their responsibilities. Being a part of the five-wide salute at the front of the field, and then see those hands up there in that flag stand is going to be cool.”

ROOKIE COLE CUSTER ADJUSTING TO MAJOR STEP UP IN CLASS

Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Cole Custer knows he has equipment equal to that of his more experienced teammates at Stewart-Haas Racing. It’s just a matter of acclimating to what he needs to go fast in NASCAR’s top series.

Custer has endured a rocky start this season. A problem with the rear end took him out of the season-opening Daytona 500 in 37th place. Last week in Las Vegas, he ran 19th.

“Yeah, we definitely want to run a lot better than that,” Custer said. “I think we have cars that are capable of winning. It is just a matter of trying to figure out the differences in the cars (from the NASCAR Xfinity Series) and make your best guess and study as much as you can before the race.

“I guessed wrong (at Las Vegas). Going into it this week, you’re able to look at a lot of data and things. I have learned a ton since last week, and it’s just a matter of taking advantage of all that and trying to perfect everything as good as you can.”

Custer won seven times in the NASCAR Xfinity Series last year and finished second in the final standings for the second straight season. Moving from the Xfinity competition package to Cup rules, however, is no easy task.

“They are a lot different, especially with the 550 (horsepower) package and how you work the throttle and everything, how you are going to do that is a lot different than Xfinity,” said the 22-year-old driver, who was 22nd fastest in opening Cup practice and 20th on the speed chart in Happy Hour.

“At the same time, you make one little mistake and are a little off in one area, and you will lose a ton of spots. Everybody here is pushing it to the limit. Everyone in the top-25 is probably capable of winning races. It is a matter of trying to perfect every part of it.”

NEGOTIATING THE SEAMS IS ONE KEY TO SUCCESS AT AUTO CLUB SPEEDWAY

In football, finding a seam in a zone defense can lead to a completed pass.

Finding a seam between lanes at Auto Club Speedway, however, can lead to disaster.

The lanes at Fontana are separated by sealer connecting the slabs of asphalt, and those seams can play havoc with a car that runs across them.

“You better pick a lane and stick to it,” said Joey Logano, who was 13th fastest in opening NASCAR Cup Series practice and 16th in the final session. “That’s how this place works. The seams here are very wide and have that sealer in there, and that sealer isn’t very grippy at all. A lot of times cars get kind of stuck on the seams.

“Cars take a bit arc down in the corner and then get to that last seam they need to cross, and it just stops and you don't get there. That’s where a lot of passes are made, when someone misses the bottom and the car behind them is able to make the bottom and make a pass that way. You have to be smart when you cross them. Especially leaving (Turn) 2, you cross over them so quickly that your car really just wants to take off.”

The seasons lend a unique character to the two-mile track.

“This place has more little details like that that a driver and team needs to overcome, more than maybe any other track we go to when it comes to bumps, seams, the surface wearing out, different lines,” Logano said.

“It’s really hard to practice here and know what you need for the race and what lanes you’re going to be racing. It has definitely been one of those races that experience has played a key role in being good in the race.”

SHORT STROKES

Kyle Busch scraped the Turn 3 wall in final practice, giving the car what crew chief Adam Stevens described as a “flesh wound.” The team was able to repair the No. 18 Toyota in relatively short order and get Busch back on the track. He was 10th fastest in the session…

Alex Bowman led both NASCAR Cup practices on Friday, running laps in 40.125 seconds (179.439 mph) in the opening session and 40.764 seconds (176.626 mph) in Happy Hour. Chevrolet drivers held the top four spots in first practice and three of the top four in the final session.