Johnson Seeks First Glen Triumph

Jimmie Johnson

Jimmie Johnson often is the center of attention, as he is here with crew chief Chad Knaus and Clint Bowyer, but Watkins Glen has not been one of his better tracks. (Photo: Getty Images)

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. - It is hard to think about Jimmie Johnson at Watkins Glen International without recalling the crash.

Thirteen years ago, the brakes failed on Johnson’s Nationwide car - sending him on a journey forever stored on YouTube.  He darted off course, changing directions faster than a startled deer.  His car surfed through the grass, crossed the track and launched, sailing more than 20 feet.  He landed in a gravel pit and slammed into styrofoam padding - this was well before the days of the SAFER Barrier, tires and a guardrail.  The impact shot portions, large and small, of styrofoam into space as if they were satellites.

Johnson soon emerged.  He climbed onto the roof and raised both arms in triumph as if he had won the race.

He has never raised his arms in triumph for a victory at this historic road course.  It’s one of five NASCAR Sprint Cup tracks where Johnson has failed to score a victory.  This course hasn’t tormented the five-time series champion as Michigan has.  That two-mile oval has teased him through the years.  Watkins Glen just has been tough on Johnson.

"I think I’ve been a top-three or top-five car," he said.  "If you run long enough in the top three or top five, you’ll have your chances to win.  But I just haven’t been that race-winning car or maybe the car’s been there, I just haven’t been the race-winning driver yet here."

For as good as he believes he’s been, his record has not been as strong.  He has four top-five finishes in 11 starts at this 2.45-mile road course.  Found leading races at other tracks, Johnson has led only 11 laps at Watkins Glen - one more than Joe Nemechek has led in his career at this track.

Already, one can hear the anti-Johnson fans saying that a road course should be in the Chase and it should be this one.

Johnson’s thoughts on such an idea?

"It wouldn’t hurt my feelings," he said.

Actually, he might be celebrating after Sunday’s race even if he doesn’t win.

There’s a a possibility - although unlikely - that Johnson could clinch a spot in the Chase after the Cheez-It 355 at The Glen.  He enters this weekend with a 178-point lead on 11th place in the standings.  Should Johnson’s lead swell to 193 points or more on 11th place this weekend, he will have clinched a Chase spot.  Should he win, he would guarantee at least a Wild Card spot in the Chase.

What might be surprising is how far he remains ahead of the field even after his woes last week at Pocono.  He hit the wall after a tire went down and had other issues afterward.  Still, he soldiered to a 13th-place finish - his worst finish in the last six races.  His lead on Clint Bowyer, second in the points, even expanded to 77 points.

"The last restart, I saw where (Bowyer) was and I thought, 'OK, I’m not going to lose many points to him,' " Johnson said.  "That was pretty cool to come back and I was shocked that it took over a day for Clint to send me a text, a very colorful text.  I expected one much sooner from him."

Johnson’s large points lead also gives him the freedom to race as he wants this weekend and the races afterward until the Chase begins next month at Chicagoland Speedway.

"The position we’re in, we can be aggressive," said Johnson, who was sixth-fastest in Friday’s final practice session.  "When you get to the end of the race and it’s those short runs, if there is a caution, being aggressive usually pays off."

Maybe this time, he’ll raise his arms in triumph in Victory Lane.

Motor Racing Network - "The Voice Of NASCAR" - will have live coverage of Sunday's Cheez-It 355 at The Glen beginning at 12 p.m. (ET), with live streaming at MotorRacingNetwork.com. 

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