Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DOVER, DE – As Jimmie Johnson leaned into the microphone Friday morning during his press conference in the Dover International Raceway media center, he fully anticipated the opening line of questioning before opening practice for Sunday’s Gander Outdoors 400 (2 p.m., NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
With time to reflect on the last lap of last weekend’s playoff cutoff race, would the seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup champion still have raced hard for the victory or should he have settled in for a safe finish?
As it turned out, Johnson doubled down Friday on his decision to go for the win, even though he collided with race leader Martin Truex Jr. just before the finish line. They both spun out and third place Ryan Blaney motored on by for the victory. Truex recovered to finish 14th instead of hoist his fifth trophy.
Johnson recovered to finish eighth and in one of the most unique circumstances in playoff history, that put him in a three-way tie in points with Kyle Larson and Aric Almirola and only two of the three able to advance to the Round of 12. Larson and Almirola won the tiebreaker based on “best finish” in the previous two playoff races and Johnson was left to race for a historic eighth championship next year.
The outcry from various “backseat drivers’ – racing’s equivalent of a “Monday morning quarterback” – was typically loud and befuddled. But Johnson reiterated Friday at Dover, that under the same circumstances again, he would go for the win instead of playing it conservatively. That’s what race car drivers do.
Johnson, 42, stood on Charlotte Motor Speedway pit lane after the race and calmly answered all the tough questions. He did so again on Friday in a formal media conference setting.
“It wasn’t a bonsai move just trying to clean him out,” Johnson said. “It was a very calculated move and if we both hit the brakes at the same point in time. Unfortunately, I got it wrong.
“There were many consequences to follow after that. Disappointed, it’s way easier after the fact is over to say, ‘well, why didn’t you?’ or ‘how come?’ and all that kind of crap. But I was focused on winning a race and that is what got me there.”
Asked if with time to reflect, would he change the approach?
“I still have to make that move,” Johnson said.
“I still have to try for it. … Looking back, I was a little lower than I typically was entering that braking zone and had a bit more steering wheel input in the car and that is why the left-front (tire) initially locked up. So I could change a couple of things, but I still .. I don’t know how I don’t go for it.”
The biggest thing, he conceded, is that he regrets collecting the reigning Cup champion and season-long title contender Truex in the accident.
“The other piece that weights on me and I don’t know if it would for all drivers, but I feel bad for Martin and that No. 78 team,” Johnson said. “I hate that my mistake affected them and could impact their season to some degree.
“So I don’t like that aspect to it, but it is racing and I know in my heart that it was a legitimate attempt at winning the race and a mistake was made.’’
“I didn’t go in there and just try to move him out of the way and wreck him and create all this havoc,” Johnson said emphatically “So I’ve moved on and did have a good week, but there are a couple of things that still linger and that always seems to go away when you get in the race car and start the next practice session.”
His 2018 championship already decided and looking ahead – something Johnson is clearly ready to do – the driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has to like his chances this weekend at Dover’s “Monster Mile.” Perhaps no other venue on the circuit presents a better opportunity for Johnson to snap a 33-race long winless streak – the longest of his career.
Johnson is the all-time winningest driver at Dover with 11 trophies to date. Next closest among the competitors this weekend is championship leader Kyle Busch with three wins. Johnson has 17 top-fives and 14 top-10s in 33 Dover starts and his driver rating of 117.2 is highest by a long-shot over the next closest driver at Dover – Busch (105.5 driver rating).
Johnson’s last win? It came at Dover last spring.
“We’re at my favorite race track and absolutely, do I want to win the race,” Johnson said. “And I’ll do everything in my power to win the race.
“It takes a collective group to have the car, the pit stops, the strategy and all that. And I don’t know if this weekend is that weekend. But if there’s a track where I can make up a tenth or two for the team, this would be one of them.
And I hope I can do that and make the difference.”