Jimmie Johnson is beginning to emerge not only as NASCAR’s best driver of the times, but as one of stock car racing’s greatest for the ages. In the fifth round of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup championship last Sunday on the furious half-mile short track in Bristol, Tennessee, Johnson outraced Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch to score his third win of the year and the 50th of his career. He thus moves into a tie for 10th place on NASCAR’s all-time winners’ list, with 1961 and ’65 champion Ned Jarrett and legendary driver and team owner Junior Johnson.
In the closing laps at Bristol Johnson seemed to be stuck in second place, barely a second behind Kurt Busch in a Penske Dodge. Busch dominated the race, leading 275 of the 500 laps, and seemed to have it under control – before a late yellow changed the complexion of the afternoon.
There were only a dozen laps to go and everyone dived into the pits for fresh tyres. Most drivers took two tyres but Busch and Johnson opted to change all four. That meant they were beaten out the pits by four other cars. When the green flag waved both Busch and Johnson used their tyres to full advantage, and Johnson did a superb job, pushing his way to the top of the track and driving past everyone. With five laps to go he drove around Tony Stewart and pulled clear to win, with Busch coming through to take a disappointed third. It was Johnson’s first win at Bristol in 17 starts.
“We’ve worked so hard for this,” he said. “I thought we were in trouble, but those four tyres were everything and the outside lane was helpful. My Chevrolet was awesome and I’m so proud of this team, and so proud of us setting a mark and going at it and accomplishing what we want to do.”
Busch tried to be philosophical, but admitted he hated losing to Johnson of all people. “We were solid all day,” he said. “We just got beat at the end on luck of the draw on restarts. That’s what our sport is all about. But I’d rather lose to any other of the 41 cars out there than the number 48 car. I thought we had him beat. I gave it all my heart today and it’s tough to come up short.”
Retired three-time NASCAR champion and Fox TV commentator Darrell Waltrip says Johnson is the best finisher he’s ever seen in stock car racing and, based on some of Jimmie’s recent performances, it’s hard to argue. Last year Johnson became the first driver in NASCAR history to win four consecutive championships, and right now he’s an unrivalled favourite to take a record fifth title in a row. After five of 36 races Johnson is third in the points, 14 behind championship leader Kevin Harvick. Matt Kenseth is second, just one point behind Harvick.
This weekend NASCAR races at another short track in Martinsville, Virginia. Martinsville is very different from Bristol and is known as ‘the paper clip’ because it has two almost hairpin-like turns with very little banking. Johnson has been very successful at Martinsville, winning five of the last seven races, so he goes into the weekend as the favourite.
By the way, Bristol was the last race for wings on NASCAR’s Sprint Cup cars. A more traditional spoiler returns at Martinsville.