When Jimmie Johnson suffered a premature elimination from the 2014 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship two weeks ago at Talladega, he picked himself up and dedicated the rest of his season to finishing on a high note despite the disappointment of knowing there would be no seventh title this year.
A fortnight on and Johnson has delivered true to his word, holding on at the front in a bruising double green-white-chequered finish to the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway to cross the line in first place ahead of determined opposition from two of the top drivers still in Chase contention, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski.
"We are back on track," asserted the reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. "Unfortunately we didn't find this stuff a month or two ago, but that is the way racing goes.
"We wanted to close out the year by having fun, and winning races helps you do that," he continued. "I'm just really proud of the effort. To win 70 Cup races is just mind‑blowing to me. Very, very proud of hitting that mark tonight. Thankful for Chad and my team. Very proud to have won all my races with one race team with one sponsor."
Johnson's victory marks the second week in succession that a driver no longer in the Chase has won a race that would have meant an automatic place in the final four line-up if it had gone to someone still in title contention. Last week it had been Johnson's team mate Dale Earnhardt Jr. thwarting a third member of the Hendrick Motorports team Jeff Gordon, while this week it had been Johnson ensuring that neither Harvick nor Keselowski could bank a place just yet in the winner-take-all season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 16.
"There's a lot of good race teams, there's always people that aren't mathematically eligible to win the championship," pointed out Johnson. "Those folks always win races at the end of the year. We've been on a hot streak some years, won six out of ten Chase races. But other years, there's plenty of other people taking the trophy out and max points out. It's just kind of how it goes."
On the penultimate green-white-chequered overtime restart it had looked as though Gordon was going to get his second bite at a guaranteed Chase transfer after all, only to get spun out by contact with Keselowski. Johnson insisted that retaliation against the Penske driver hadn't been on his mind when it came back to the green flag, for the simple reason that he just hadn't really known what had just occurred.
"What happened there? I don't have a clue," he asked reporters. "Seems like there was a bunch of cautions or attempts at the green white. There was one where Jeff was gone.
"The inside lane had been the successful lane," he recalled of the first GWC attempt. "Jeff just got a really good start the restart before and got control of the race. He chose the outside lane again, which was shocking to me, because all night he'd taken the bottom.
"With him on my outside going through the corner, my car was pretty uncomfortable. Frankly, I just let off some, surrendered the position. I wasn't going to take him out in the process. That's how he got me the one where he checked out. Then I was just trying to hold off the #2 the best that I could.
"When things changed and the #24 wasn't on my outside, there was no need to lift. I left it flat on the floor all the way through four and just cleared [Keselowski] off of turn four and came to the white at that point," he recalled.
Johnson wasn't involved in the post-race pit lane brawl that broke out when Gordon went to the Penske area to confront Keselowski: "I saw a little bit on the big screen going down the back straightaway. I would definitely have to go to the tape and watch and see what happened there.
"I need to see what happened with the #2. Based on Jeff's frustration, I would assume that it was pretty aggressive, and Jeff just doesn't go crazy like that after a race," Johnson noted, adding that he through it was the inevitable outcome of the new high-pressure Chase format introduced this season.
"The system is breeding this, it was by design. I think [NASCAR CEO] Brian France sat back and looked long and hard at this and was hopeful that these moments would happen," he said.
"It's changing the way things take place on the track. When I think back to when I started, we'd point people by, let them go. There was this gentleman agreement on the racetrack. Everybody told you to study Mark Martin, watch how he lets people go. That hasn't happened in years. We'll cut each other's throat any chance we get. It's just trending that way.
"We'll see what it means for the future for Brad," Johnson added. "I feel like on track he does a good job. I think he gets himself in more trouble off the track with things that he says personally. We'll see how things proceed from here and how he handles all that."
As to whether the pit lane brawls were a good thing for the sport and its image, Johnson felt not. "From a die-hard fan standpoint, I don't believe that's what fans want to see," he said. "But I'm confident that tomorrow we'll be on the front cover of every paper, and we're trending on all the social stuff.
"I don't know what the right answer is. Tonight I hope people tuned in to watch, but you just never know. Again, my comments come from a place of caring for our sport. I want our sport to be viewed and I want fans in the grandstand. At the end of the day if I make a comment in here that somebody agrees with me or doesn't, all I care about is our sport being successful. I'm trusting Brian France and the executives at NASCAR to take us down that road."
The new Chase format had even resulted in an unusually high level of tension between Johnson and his long time crew chief Chad Knaus while they were still in title contention, to the extent that many observers started speculating that the Hendrick management might feel the need to break up the partnership that had secured six Sprint Cup championships over the last decade. But on Sunday, Johnson appeared to firmly squelch any such speculation.
"He will be my crew chief as long as he wants to climb up on that box," Johnson said emphatically. "Crew chiefs live in dog years so I would imagine he is going to have enough before I have enough, but just such a great run of events.
"Sure we were frustrated, sure we wanted to be fast, but you are going to have high emotions in any team sport when you are not doing well, especially when you are a championship calibre team. It's just how it is," he added. "It's tough when you're going through watching, a championship opportunity slip away from you.
"You guys ask me questions in here about us raising hell with one another on the radio, but that's part of the process," he insisted. "That's one thing that has been good about us. We've always been able to be honest with one another and say tough things. Sure, you might not want to hear it, it might sting a little bit. But it's what has kept us together for all these years and provided the 70 wins and six championships."
Knaus gave a similarly firm impression that he wasn't going anywhere in the off-season: "I'm set. I don't foresee a change with the #48 car from a driver or crew chief standpoint in the near future," he said. "I don't foresee that happening. If it does, I'll have to be a reporter because I don't know what the hell I'm going to do after that!"
It seems that the dream team of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will still be in place and fighting for a brand new championship in 2015. And in the meantime, there's still two more chances in this season for Johnson and the crew of the #48 to have some more fun in victory lane at Phoenix and Homestead before the curtain falls on their racing year.
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