DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. Jimmie Johnson is feeling pretty comfortable with himself after winning Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
But it’s how he’s feeling two months from now that he’s more focused on.
Johnson, a five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, has a 49-point lead over second-place Clint Bowyer in this season’s standings. His four victories are tied with Matt Kenseth, giving him the inside edge for now for the top seed when the Chase for the Cup begins in early September.
“What we’ve done over the course of the year, leading the points like we have with a big margin, that probably sends the biggest message that we’re buttoned up and ready and in a position to win a sixth championship,” Johnson said. “Every point counts. I think we’re locked into the Chase. Clearly we’ve got nothing to worry about from that standpoint.”
Johnson said his dominance at Daytona, where he led 94 of 161 laps, shouldn’t be construed as any kind of huge advantage for him as the Chase nears – or when it begins. Only one other restrictor-plate race remains on the schedule (a Chase race at Talladega in October). So he’s more concerned about his Hendrick Motorsports team’s program for 1.5-mile tracks, which make up half of the Chase races.
“(Saturday) doesn’t send the strongest message,” said Johnson. “It’s really what we do on the mile-and-a-half racetracks. People read into it, they look at how you perform week in and week out, and based on (Saturday’s) performance, we’ll have a great race car at Talladega. But that’s the one plate race in the final 10.”
A sixth Cup would be significant – only Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty have won more – but Johnson made another kind of history Saturday. He became the first driver since Bobby Allison in 1982 to win both races at Daytona in one season.
“It’s amazing to (be) associated with that,” said Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief.
Johnson said he has always thought the relationship that hall-of-famer Allison had with his late son Davey was special.
“I always admired Bobby and Davey and thought it was so cool that a father and son were racing against each other,” said Johnson. “I remember watching the Daytona 500 where they duked it out.
“I really liked the whole father-son aspect. I had a great relationship with my dad growing up from a racing standpoint. We’d go to the desert and ride, and he’d teach me things. So there’s that connection that I had, that it would be cool to race against your dad.
“I never had that chance, but it helped me build a fondness for both of them.”
Johnson was working in an engine shop in Santee, Calif., in 1992 when he learned that Davey Allison had been killed in a helicopter accident.
“Some people remember where they were when Princess Diana passed away,” said Johnson. “I remember where I was, where I was standing, where I was working when I heard on the radio that Davey had crashed in the helicopter.”