For Jimmie Johnson, the only thing that has changed about Charlotte Motor Speedway is the name.
Yes, when Johnson and the track shared the same sponsor, Lowe’s, the No. 48 team’s burgeoning success inevitably led the crew to refer to the 1.5-mile racetrack as “our house.”
Although the speedway reverted to its original title a few years back, Johnson’s remarkable resume at CMS remains the best among current drivers.
In 21 starts, Johnson has six victories, 10 top fives and 14 top 10 finishes. J.J. has led 1,386 of the 7,132 laps he raced on that track.
And after winning his third All-Star race last Saturday night, Johnson feels more confident than ever entering Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600. The No. 48 crew approached that event as one big test session, where all the data accumulated could be used to set up the car for when points were on the line.
“For us it is kind of predictable why and what we would do,” Johnson said.
“We have been here other times where we have been off and maybe used the All-Star as a testing ground and then come back here with new ideas or old proven equipment, or, hey the new stuff worked, let’s try it.
“Last weekend is very important. It’s not often that we get to go test, and the All-Star in a sense is a test bed for a lot of reasons for a lot of teams.”
Johnson has a new car for the race. Despite the lessons learned on last week’s winning car, with NASCAR taking the vehicle back to the tech center for further inspection through Tuesday, it would have been impossible to refurbish it in time for practice and qualifying on Thursday. Plus, the team feels the 600 car will be better.
For crew chief Chad Knaus and team engineer Greg Ives, the All-Star Race also provided an opportunity to work on strategy for the 600. The right choices on fuel and tires will pay dividends.
However, bad decisions can prove costly, particularly since the Coca-Cola 600 is the longest race of the season.
Johnson, who qualified third, believes track position will be imperative on Sunday, and a well-selected pit box will make a difference, particularly in the closing laps.
“With this race and the surface like it is, it is easy to lose track position,” Johnson said. “Guys will just take right (side tires), gamble on fuel, so track position is always important. Pit road pick is always important.
“I want to be smart … because at some point there is going to be that deal where you lose track position. It is so important.
“If you can’t fight your way through (traffic) … and pick up some spots, then you are a sitting duck. We will enjoy the clean air at the start, but all night long I will be waiting for that time, hopefully it doesn’t happen, but 600 miles it seems to.”
Another game-changer for Johnson is the No. 48 pit crew. The Lowe’s over-the-wall squad won their first Pit Crew Challenge on May 17 — five days after their Darlington victory and two nights before the All-Star win.
After reorganizing the team’s selection and training process, crew chief Knaus has assembled a solid squad.
“Last year we made a pretty big transition to a pretty young group of guys, guys that came from another team or two,” Knaus said.
“I haven’t seen a group of guys that have worked so hard to have good, solid pit stops in my life. These guys are just fantastic.”
While Johnson wasn’t very J.J.-like last year at Charlotte — an engine failure in the 600 relegated him to 28th, and he crashed out in the fall with 18 laps remaining the race and was scored 34th — the momentum from winning the last two weeks certainly will be there for the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Lowe’s team.
“We are really pleased with where our cars are right now,” Johnson said. “I have been sitting up here telling all of you that we are close and it is coming and look at the laps led and all that stuff. I’m glad to be able to back up what I have been talking about over these last few months.
“It really just boils down to the hard work that has come through the engine shop, chassis shop, our engineering staff and the crew chiefs. We have a better product this year. We have been able to be close to victory lane a few times so far this year, and then we got it done the last two weeks.
“Obviously, winning during the All-Star race is very helpful. We are excited to get on the track. We feel like we will be a threat for the win.”
And with the way this team is running, Johnson is poised to win at his house — or anyone else’s.
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