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Jimmie Johnson on ride of his life after big win

Friday, Mar. 01, 2013

Jimmie Johnson tested that “too much of a good thing’’ theory all week, and his string of obligations will run right through Saturday’s Nationwide Race at Phoenix International Raceway.

Johnson hasn’t driven a Nationwide event since 2011. That was in Watkins Glen, N.Y., a distinctive road course where drivers often look for ways to get in extra practice. This isn’t all that different; Johnson didn’t like his results at the 1-mile track here when he blew a tire in the fall.

So long ago he committed to driving Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports No. 5 car in the support race in Phoenix. This track’s repaved layout means even the best drivers are searching for where the racing groves will be this weekend.

“I just truthfully needed to be better at this track, and it’s tough to get laps’’ here, Johnson said Friday. “We considered coming out and testing. But with the tire change and the test policy for Cup, it just wasn’t going to work.

“So the next-best thing was driving the Nationwide Series. I have no clue what I’m going to learn from those cars that will carry over (to Sprint Cup), but reps on this track can’t hurt me.’’

What could hurt him is the wild week that ensued after Johnson won the Daytona 500 Sunday. It’s a nice problem, obviously, but Johnson was overwhelmed by the response to his victory and the off-track obligations that built up.

Regardless of his finish in Daytona, this was going to be a long week. Lowe’s, the Mooresville-based home-improvement chain that sponsors his No. 48 Chevrolet, held its national sales meeting in Las Vegas this week. That’s an automatic appearance in Johnson’s schedule.

Particularly so after Lowe’s re-upped its sponsorship, in a deal announced just after Sunday’s victory.

“With the economy like it’s been the last few years, of course there’s been some concern,’’ whether Lowe’s would renew, Johnson said. “If we went into the late summer months and didn’t have it locked down, far more concern would have set in then.’’

Johnson chuckled Friday when asked if he had to win Daytona to keep his sponsor.

“As you can imagine with a big corporation and lawyers and documents, it’s been under way for a long, long time,’’ Johnson said. “Just a great time to announce it, right after the 500.’’

Johnson sounded optimistic and breezy Friday, but also a little fried. The interview requests were a constant through the week in a way that overwhelmed even a multi-time Sprint Cup champion.

Johnson said either the attention has grown or he simply forgot what a big deal it is to win NASCAR’s biggest race: “It felt like I was on a champion’s tour.’’

Except this was the circuit’s first race, not its last, and Johnson needs to get back to business. He slept hard Thursday night and said he needs another night of heavy “zzzz’s’’, because he feels the fatigue in his face and eyes. Then he’ll climb into that Nationwide car because “the way the chase is settled, you don’t just need top 10s, you need top 5s and wins.”

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