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Johnson could be even better at Charlotte

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Monday, May. 20, 2013

In NASCAR history, nobody has dominated Charlotte Motor Speedway like Jimmie Johnson.

What’s the scariest proposition about that?

He isn’t even as good at the track as he used to be.

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 is the 10th anniversary of Johnson’s first Cup points win at CMS – he won both his first NASCAR All-Star Race and first Coca-Cola 600 in 2003.

Johnson is tied with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip with six Cup wins at CMS, but all Johnson’s wins have come in the last 10 years. It took both Allison and Waltrip more than a decade to accumulate their respective victories.

And that doesn’t count the more than $4 million and NASCAR-record four wins Johnson has in the all-star race, including the past two.

“In many ways it doesn’t seem like 10 years ago that I first won at Charlotte but then I look back at photos a while ago and it sure does,” Johnson said.

“Even today, I still kick myself because the 600 the year before we had led like 300 laps (actually 263) and had a great car and threw it away at the end (and finished seventh).

“I was determined to redeem myself the next 600 and we started it out by winning the all-star race.”

The 2003 victory ignited an unprecedented run for Johnson at Charlotte. He finished third in the 2003 fall race and then swept both Cup races in the 2004 and 2005 seasons.

Johnson added a victory in the fall race in 2009, but has been absent from the once-familiar Victory Lane since except for his all-star wins of the past two seasons.

“When the track was rough and tire wear was really high, there’s just something that worked at this track for myself and for (crew chief) Chad (Knaus),” Johnson said.

“It really takes a combination of car and driver to match up. Rough tracks, tracks that have a high wear rate on the tire, we both shine at those venues, and this track was that.”

Johnson said resurfacing in 2006 combined with tires produced by Goodyear that produced little wear brought his No. 48 team more in line with other competitors at the track.

Former longtime CMS president H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler said Johnson was a quick study to the nuances of Charlotte in part because of his background in off-road truck racing.

“Jimmie looks like a guy out of the ‘Great Gatsby’ but his hands were smeared with red dirt and grease,” Wheeler said. “Lots of dirt (experience) just like the great Southern drivers such as Tim Flock Jr., Buck Baker and Ned Jarrett.

“Jimmie was perfect for NASCAR. He also had a smoothness and coolness behind the wheel that beckoned success on a tough track like Charlotte.”

The repaving dramatically altered the physical characteristics of CMS and it has taken time for Johnson and Knaus to perfect a consistent winning formula for the track.

Johnson said he continues to better understand Charlotte and believes his team is close to recapturing its magic.

“We’re working hard to be back on top of things,” he said. “There’s nothing better than winning here at home.

“I think we’re one of three or one of five that can really make something happen here at this track where before we seemed to have a pretty good advantage.”

Utter: 704-358-5113

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