No matter how many times it looks like Jimmie Johnson is down and out, the five-time champion rises to the occasion.
On Sunday Johnson did it again in the Subway Fresh Fit 500 after his No. 48 Kobalt Tools / Lowe’s Chevrolet team were nowhere near the top of the charts during practice and qualifying. Many were quick to write him off and wonder what was wrong.
“We just struggled from Friday’s first practice session when we unloaded,” he said afterwards.
“We just been working on understanding the new stuff we have developed during the off-season in trying to get laps and reps.”
Heading into Sunday, Johnson had won four of the last seven races at the Phoenix International Raceway. But last fall he never led a lap and struggled early on but used fuel mileage strategy to finish in the top five.
Sunday, Johnson again wasn’t in typical form and while he did led laps, they came during cycles in green flag pit stops. As the race went on though the 48 team kept plugging away and the car got better. Moving from his 28th starting spot to the top 10 before firmly planting himself in the top three.
“We just needed laps,” Johnson said.
“The first half of the race we could not really get going, just way too loose and we pitted every caution that there was. And at one point we thought we were going to be out of tires because we came to pit road so many times.”
Johnson made it through the ‘Big One’ on lap 67 where 13 cars were torn up off turn two after Brian Vickers and Matt Kenseth made contact and Vickers spun in front of the field. The race was red flagged and after it restarted Johnson said his team was able to tighten the car up and he started to find consistency that helped him become a contender for the win.
“We had a good day,” he said.
“On the short run I think the 18 and the 24 had us beat. Longer we went, the more our car kind of tightened up and I seemed to be a little closer to these guys. But third was really where we ran all day and where we deserved to finish.”
Johnson’s championship like performance followed teammate Jeff Gordon’s win. The two led the charge for Hendrick Motorsports who finished first (Gordon), third (Johnson), 10th (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and 13th (Mark Martin) after each of them encountered some sort of setback during the event.
That came after all of them struggled in qualifying and practice. To Johnson it was just further proof how the organization is so close in equipment.
“You could see that we are all in bed together and we all run the same stuff,” he said.
“During the off-season, the four crew chiefs worked really close together to find speed. We felt like at the end of last year we did not have the pace that we needed.”
Johnson came into 2011 as the only Hendrick driver to have won last year. Team owner Rick Hendrick swap three of the four teams in order to find the magic that all needed in order to get back to the results that the organization is used to.
With the so-called real season starting at Phoenix, Hendrick said he was worried after qualifying when all four teams started 20th or worse. But just like Johnson, every team was able to get better as the race went on.
“As a group we came here and started today with our tail between our legs,” said Johnson.
“It’s nice to finish up the day with one in victory lane and one in third. A good day for HMS.”
Following a wreck in the Daytona 500, his third place finish helps move Johnson up to 13th in the point standings, tied with Carl Edwards for the 12 position and a Chase spot. Next week he’ll head to Las Vegas where he’s the defending winner after outrunning Gordon on a battle of two vs. four tires.
This time though, Johnson watched as Gordon was the one celebrating and on a track that will be completely different when the Cup Series returns in a few months. As Johnson spoke of his day he watched as bulldozers were already starting to tear up the track for it’s repaving and reconfiguring.
While Johnson said he wanted to watch he knew he had to stay on track. That’s what his team did on Sunday after what started as a weekend that looked like it could go downhill fast.