Johnson Has Big-League Impact
April 21, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
And he’s certainly showing little fear of the biggest and fastest track on the circuit – Talladega Superspeedway. Rookies just aren’t supposed to do this well at Talladega, especially on their first try.
But there’s Johnson, on the pole for Sunday’s Aaron’s 499 (2 p.m. ET start) with a fast lap of 186.532 mph. It was the second pole of his young Winston Cup career after earning the top spot for the season-opening Daytona 500 in February.
His qualifying success at Talladega has been just part of the Cinderella story for Johnson in 2002. Hand picked by Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon to drive the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy this season, Johnson has had little trouble adjusting to life in the big leagues.
He’s seventh in the Winston Cup points standings with an incredible five top-10 finishes in eight starts.
This after what could be termed as a good, but “less-than-spectacular” two-year Busch Series career, in which he visited victory lane just once.
“One thing I try to do is live by the truth,” Johnson said. “I had a pretty solid Busch career, won a race, but I didn’t dominate by any means. In ASA, I ran two years and was strong there, winning a couple of races. In off-road stuff, where I came from, we did dominate there and were very successful.
“The thing is, I knew I was going to climb into great equipment. Now that I’m in that equipment and have a full-time crew chief like Chad Knaus – in which I have a great relationship – it’s still a bit surprising to me, and I’m sure it is to other people, as well.
“The cars that are being put underneath me are incredible. So, as success has been coming, it’s been building confidence in myself and in the team because we know that when we’re on our game, we’re competitive.”
Johnson is one place ahead of Gordon in the Winston Cup standings. He’s 10 points ahead of Ryan Newman in the chase for Raybestos Rookie of the Year. He and Newman have each been the top-finishing rookie in a race four times.
“You can’t say enough about what Jimmie and that team have done so far this year,” Gordon said. “That team is putting great cars on the track, and Jimmie’s showing off his talent on the track. I’m not sure we expected him to be doing this well at this point of the season, but we knew that team was going to be very competitive. It’s just a bonus at this stage that they’re running up front.”
Last year at Talladega, Johnson was involved in an accident in the Busch Series race and finished 28th. In his only Winston Cup restrictor-plate race, at Daytona in February, Johnson got in a few scrapes but still managed to finish a respectable 15th.
Talladega is a bit of a different animal than Daytona, and he’s concerned that his lack of experience at the circuit’s largest track may hurt him Sunday afternoon.
“I did learn a lot and experience is the key, especially at these plate races,” Johnson said. “I do feel I’m at a disadvantage in that department. Unfortunately nowadays, you can get anything you want as fast you want it, but experience doesn’t come that way. I’ve gotta wait years for that.
“So, I’m probably at a disadvantage come Sunday afternoon. The biggest thing I really learned (at Daytona) is how patient you need to be. Racing as hard as you can for a fraction of an inch so you didn’t lose the draft and you held your position really bit a lot of guys at Daytona. You get frustrated and you get shuffled out and you end up in a crash.
“I realized how long 500 miles is, really. That (Daytona) was my first taste of it. And I’ve been trying to adapt to that all season long.”
Johnson seems to be doing a pretty good job of that. And if he’s able to adapt to Talladega as he has to other tracks so far this season, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see him holding the trophy in victory lane Sunday afternoon.