Jimmie Johnson: Monster slayer
DOVER, Del. -- Some of Jimmie Johnson's worst- and best-kept secrets were revealed on Sunday. The six-time Sprint Cup champion remains on another plane of performance at Dover International Speedway. And the laparoscopic hernia surgery he underwent in December doesn't look like it's going to leave a scar on his latest title defense.
"We can get on a roll," Johnson said after winning his second consecutive race of the season and record ninth at Dover. "We've got some good tracks ahead for us. I think that tracks really build momentum for teams and drivers, and going to Charlotte is a great track, here is a great track for us, Pocono next weekend is [crew chief Chad Knaus'] favorite racetrack, and I think you can look ahead at the summer months and see who historically runs well at different tracks and kind of pick your favorites.
"It certainly has been that way for us. The tracks we've been bad at, we've gone there and been embarrassed by our performance, and then the tracks that are good to us still have been good to us."
Dover was quite good to him, yet again.
Johnson was impressive on Sunday, leading seven times for 272 of 400 laps, and setting a new record for turns led (3,074) at the 1-mile concrete venue. Starting fourth, he watched Kyle Busch lead the first 81 laps before swiping the top spot. But on Lap 125, one of the few drivers with seemingly any chance of denying Johnson was eliminated from the race, as the No. 18 Toyota was chopped down on by Clint Bowyer, apparently on poor advice from his spotter, forcing Busch into the wall during a battle for third place. Busch, who was attempting to win the Truck, Nationwide and Cup races at the same track in the same weekend for the second time, finished 42nd.
"I hated to be in that situation with the [Busch]," Bowyer said. "It's one of those deals where I thought I was clear, obviously, and wasn't and ruined his day and certainly didn't help mine."
The rest of the race became an exercise in managing cautions, restarts and fuel, and Johnson excelled in every facet. And the Johnson good fortune that Kevin Harvick once described as a "golden horseshoe" returned, as the only other car Knaus felt could win the race, the car against which the team had gauged itself all season -- ironically, Harvick's No. 4 Chevrolet -- became a nonfactor after leading 24 laps when a valve stem failure relegated the two-time winner to 17th place.
Knaus and spotter Earl Barban both fumed when debris cautions twice interrupted lengthy runs at the point, during which Johnson opened as much as a three-second lead -- but each time Johnson roared off on restarts. Pole sitter Brad Keselowski was the last with a chance, but could keep up with Johnson only for the first few corners of a restart with four laps remaining.
"I think for sure when you come to Dover it's always the 48," said the winless Kenseth, who retook the points lead from Gordon. "They are just unbelievable here. If you're going to have a shot to win here, that's the car you're going to have to beat every time unless they break. It's not unexpected when you come here, and I don't know if you guys notice, but he's pretty good at all the racetracks.
"We've got to figure out how to get ahead of them."
Granted, Johnson's win streak is at a modest two. But it seems grander than that, especially juxtaposed to the first 11 winless weeks of the season. And equally as concerning for his competitors, man and machine might just now be reaching their potential after an unusual offseason and start to the campaign. Johnson revealed Sunday that he had undergone surgery to repair three bilateral hernias just after the championship banquet, which prevented his team from undertaking an offseason test at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Johnson said he resumed training within 10 days of the procedure, but two subsequent test sessions were lost because of inclement weather.
"Surprised nobody knew about this thing sooner. It wasn't a secret by any stretch of the imagination," he said. "It wasn't a sports hernia. It was something over time and getting older that something like 60 percent of men near the age of 40 have these and don't know, but I saw one midseason, a little protrusion in my skin and went and had it checked out, and they're like, you've got a couple years to get it fixed, so I figured I'd get it fixed sooner rather than later and went in right after the banquet. That kind of led to us missing out on some of the test sessions that went on during the winter months, but we felt like it was time to shut things down and let the team kind of recoup and then just got back after it after that."
Knaus, who seemed briefly stupefied after being asked about Johnson's nonsecret, said the team was "a pinch behind this year" entering this season, but not because of Johnson's procedure. His team's advantages, he said, had been "minimized" by a new aerodynamics package implemented by NASCAR this season.
"We're still behind," Knaus said. "I think we're behind on just a little bit of everything. When you are fortunate enough to battle for a championship, your main focus goes solely on trying to win a championship, so as we were going through and pursued the 2013 season championship, we lost focus on 2014. But that's just inherent. That's what happens because you have to focus on the goal that's directly in front of you."
The pinch may be down to a smidge. Johnson used a new car to lead 164 of 400 laps and win the Coca-Cola 600 from the pole last week and drove another fresh machine on Sunday. The third iteration of the car will be used at Indianapolis, Knaus said.
"The last couple weeks have shown great strides in that direction," Knaus said, "but we're not where we need to be."
The secret's out, though. They're getting close.
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