Not satisfied with a career where he’s won more championships than all but two drivers in NASCAR history and more races than six drivers, Jimmie Johnson is the first competitor to advance to the Round of 8 in part because of an insatiable desire to improve.
Sunday’s win at Charlotte Motor Speedway ended a career-high 24-race winless drought and moved Johnson one step closer to a seventh series title that would tie him with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr.
That Johnson returned to this level after the summer doldrums Hendrick Motorsports experienced isn’t surprising because Johnson keeps searching for ways to improve.
“I’ve been trying to change what I do and try to learn more about the vehicles and how I can be more useful for the engineers and crew chief,’’ Johnson told NBC Sports after his Charlotte victory. “I’d say the last two to three months, it’s all come together, and I find that things I’m looking at and I feel we can do to improve the car, (are) areas we’re working in, too. I’m learning a lot more about the vehicle. I know some. I know the basics, but really getting deeply involved. We’re along the same lines and thinking about the same stuff now, which is cool.’’
With Jeff Gordon retiring last year, Johnson ascended to the role of senior driver at Hendrick Motorsports. He’s taken that leadership role for an organization with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and Chase Elliott.
“I’d say that I feel like the leadership role I’ve been working on, and some months are better than others, it’s really been to unify all four teams and drivers and get all four crew chiefs to really rely on one another and count on one another, and then we’ll go settle it on Sunday,’’ Johnson said.
“The notes have always been there. But if you can describe something with a little more sincerity or detail to help someone really grasp why you’re thinking this way, and why you’re making these decisions about your car.
“The same thing is just sharing the emotional side with my teammates and driver standpoint and try to manage the race, manage emotions, what I’m thinking, how I’m thinking. There’s a lot that goes into that. That’s where we’ve gone next level and needed to. I think we were probably getting beat by it. I think the Gibbs folks have been doing a real nice job on that front. I feel like we’re catching them there now.’’
Johnson has led a series-high 363 laps in the first four Chase races. Hendrick Motorsports has led 555 laps in the Chase — nearly 200 more laps than the next team. Sunday, Johnson won and Kahne was third, marking the first time in 16 races that Hendrick Motorsports placed two cars in the top five.
Part of being a team leader is showing by example. Johnson’s spat of pit road speeding penalties — he has had four since Indianapolis in July — led him to a parking lot across the street from Charlotte Motor Speedway to practice driving down pit road.
“I didn’t want to leave a stone unturned,’’ Johnson said. “Practice session is so precious at a racetrack that you can mess with it there, but I just wanted to start over at ground zero and work on pit road speed, look on the screen I look at, understanding how the little light bulbs that light up, what the increments are, how to use them. Made some small changes, lot of it was repetitive. I just couldn’t sit home another week and say I’ve got it. I’ll fix it. I had to do something to convince myself to fix it and show these guys that I’m doing everything I can.’’