He’s won at restrictor plate tracks.
He’s won at superspeedways.
He’s won at tri-ovals and quad-ovals
He’s won at short tracks.
He’s even broken the record for winning four straight NASCAR Sprint Cup Championships.
Entering Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway, Jimmie Johnson had never won on a road course.
Road courses, only visited twice a year on the Sprint Cup circuit, had been Johnson’s kryptonite. Critics wondered if his career could really be considered complete if he had never won on a track with right-handed turns, as if his other accomplishments and records weren’t really enough to justify his place in history.
The drivers ahead of him on the championship list, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, had both won on road courses before. Jeff Gordon, the driver tied with Johnson in championships, is known as the current king of road courses with his nine wins.
It was that hole in his resume that left open talks that maybe these four years were all luck. That it was all equipment. That it was all crew chief, Chad Knaus.
In his ninth career start at the 11-cornered course in Sonoma, California, Johnson finally won. He finally conquered the road. He finally conquered his kryptonite.
And he did in dominating fashion. Johnson led 55 out of 110 laps, including the final seven laps after then-leader Marcos Ambrose stalled his car under caution. Ambrose, who led 35 laps and was Johnson’s only legitimate competition throughout the day, fell back to seventh and finished sixth.
“I have to back up a step and say that I feel terrible for them (Ambrose and the No. 47 team),” said Jimmie Johnson on SPEED Victory Lane. “I am very happy to have this trophy and to have won this race, but he’s a great driver and puts on one heck of a show and his team owners gave me my start in the Nationwide series.
“So, if I didn’t win today and they won I was going to be very happy for those guys. It just didn’t work out for them and we took advantage of it.”
Ambrose arguably had the best car by the end of the race, especially on short runs. In an effort to save fuel – no one really knows why – he cut the engine off while the field was running pace laps during the final caution.
He cut it off at the wrong place and was unable to re-fire the engine as it crept uphill through turns one and two, where it eventually stopped dead on the track. Several cars passed by before Ambrose was able to get his Toyota rolling again.
NASCAR rules state that a driver is supposed to maintain the same speed as the pace car in order to keep his or her position under caution. Ambrose didn’t, and therefore, was forced to start seventh, where he was when he got the car started again.
With Ambrose out of the way, it was smooth sailing for Johnson.
While NASCAR’s ruling was in compliance with the rules, it was still controversial. Many fans were left wondering whether or not NASCAR would have made the same decision if it were Johnson who would have stalled out.
Regardless, it’s doubtful that Sunday’s winner had conspiracy on his mind in victory lane. He had worked too hard to finally get there to let it cast a dark cloud over his celebration.
“It feels so good,” he said in victory lane. “I've been working really hard to get better as a road course driver. I have to thank Bob Stallings and Alex Gurney and Jon Fogarty and Kyle Brannan and all the guys at GAINSCO Racing who have been working with me and letting me come and run their Grand Am car. It has been a big help.
“On top of that Hendrick Motorsports has been working so hard to get better at this stuff. We tested again and again and again and we are getting better. I'm getting better and we have all the tools here.
“Just an awesome day.”
With this win, Johnson is not only the latest NASCAR driver to become a road course winner, but he has officially broken out of that slump that plagued him last May.
His win Sunday was his third straight finish in the top six and moved him up to second in the points standings.
On a day where the two racers who have asserted themselves as the biggest threats to Johnson’s crown, Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, struggled mightily, Johnson proved he and his team are still the guys to beat.
They’re still on top of the hill.
More importantly, though, is what this win does for his legacy. No longer does he have a big goose egg for wins on a road course. Those who choose to discount Johnson’s career have one less argument at their disposal.
But does he feel like he’s accomplished all he can?
“I think we have four more tracks to work on to try and win at all of them.
“I'm just happy to get back to victory lane. Especially at a track that has been so tough on me over the years.”
You hear that?
Jimmie Johnson wants to win them all.
But for now, he needs to sit back and enjoy this victory. It solidified his place as once again the frontrunner for this year’s championship.
It also solidified his place in the annals of NASCAR’s history.
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