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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Cool-Down Lap: A Jimmie Johnson Win We Finally Can Stomach?

You may be sick and tired of hearing some version of this phrase: “Coming to the checkered flag, the No. 48 team will do it again. Jimmie Johnson wins at (insert name of any type of track except a road course here).” But his 50th career victory in Sunday’s Food City 500 was different, despite operating under the No. 48 team’s usual modus operandi: start the race with the second or third-best car, lose track position by getting four tires on a late pit stop, and still manage to claw up to the lead with one to three laps remaining – leaving the actual best car the scraps of a top-five finish.

I know people are tired of Johnson winning, not just because he has done it so often, but also because he and crew chief Chad Knaus have made it look easy. How many races can you think of where Johnson started near the front, took the lead early, then coasted to victory? And yes, Sunday’s race at Bristol appeared to be shaping up that way early on. The four-time defending champ saw either Kurt Busch or polesitter Joey Logano swap the point for the first five laps before roaring to the lead on lap 6 and staying there for the next 28 circuits. He led again from laps 48 to 96, making 77 laps out front in the first 100 – in other words, setting him on pace to lead 388 of the race’s 500 laps. Yawn. But wait….

Busch, a former dominating force in the Bristol bullring and winner two weeks ago at Atlanta Motor Speedway, kept his No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge out front for 278 laps in all, leading the most of anyone by far in the race. Busch was poised to add some more Thunder Valley hardware to his trophy case, but Logano scraped the wall with 17 laps to go and the ensuing brake duct debris brought out the race’s final caution. With Johnson in tow, both he and Busch took on four tires, while several other drivers gained track position and took two. This shuffled Busch and Johnson to the fifth and sixth positions, respectively, making both Steve Addington, Busch’s crew chief, and Knaus appear in the wrong on their late-race strategy.

At moments like these, we have seen Johnson go into points conservation mode, deciding against making risky moves and instead opting for a sure top-10 or top-five finish. Not Sunday. Johnson conducted a driving clinic in this race’s last handful of laps, wasting no time getting three-wide with Matt Kenseth and restart leader Greg Biffle before he set his sights on Tony Stewart. Stewart, winless since the Kansas race in 2009, held his ground briefly, getting just enough of a run off the high line coming off the turn 2 and turn 4 corners. But his left-side tires were ultimately inferior to Johnson’s, and the extra grip of those fresh Goodyears awarded Jimmie the race-winning pass. Further back, Busch made up only a paltry two positions and finished third.

But that aggression isn’t the only reason why Sunday’s race was different for JJ, as his victory breaks a 16-race, career-long winless drought in Thunder Valley. Last season, Bristol was the site that he wrecked in his Truck Series debut, and let’s not forget he even spun out on the green track in this weekend’s opening practice. But after posting fast speeds in almost every on-track session throughout the weekend, Johnson and the No. 48’s seeming vulnerability appeared all but evaporated at one of their all-time worst tracks.

As for the man he beat, Busch did more than just put up a fight Sunday. Though several drivers spent time up front, he clearly had the best car and had even Johnson on the ropes. But the reigning four-time champ rose to the occasion, once circumstances allowed him to, and claimed his 50th career win at a track more lovable than the cookie-cutter ones that pervade the circuit and that he has been most successful on.

After Johnson took the drivers to school en route to the checkered, he also rang the bell calling Burnout School into session, pegging his accelerator while his winning ride was pointed against the inside wall – sending up a tower of smoke for the fans and his jubilant crew. Johnson, equipped with a saucier, edgier attitude this season than in years past, then proceeded to boast, showcasing amazing car control while simultaneously burning his rear tires and threading his Chevy up the entire length of the ramp to victory lane.

OK, maybe you’re still yawning after all that. Maybe Johnson’s third win in five races in 2010 is just another hash mark for you to hold against both him and NASCAR. But Sunday’s race had a different feel than the normal, garden variety episode of Hendrick dominance we usually witness. Johnson hung in contention, then gained five positions in four laps to take the lead in the closing stages, vanquishing a demon that’s haunted him for years in the process. He also made some history (again) as he now sits tied with Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett for 10th on the career wins list. Sunday’s dramatic, come-from-behind win by Johnson and the history attached to it, believe it or not, gives the Sprint Cup Series a spring in its step as NASCAR moves to Martinsville next weekend… a place where he will also likely end the day up front.

People might not be so happy about that next trip to victory lane. But on this Sunday, in this race… for once, Johnson should have gotten a pass from his detractors.

Listen to Doug weekly on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory each Saturday, from 12-1 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts the “Chase Elliott Podcast” and the “Bill Elliott Racing Podcast” on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.

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