Long: Johnson’s victory not necessarily a sign of what’s to come this season

7 Comments

HAMPTON, Ga. – Before anyone anoints Jimmie Johnson the next seven-time champion, before predictions of double-digit win totals fill the airwaves and Internet, take a breath.

There’s still much for Johnson and his team to prove — let alone everyone else.

That’s what will make this upcoming three-race West Coast swing to Las Vegas (1.5-mile speedway), Phoenix (1 mile) and Auto Club Speedway (2 miles) fascinating.

Many questions remain heading toward this sojourn because so little has been unveiled.

Daytona reveals little on how a team will fare this season because of its carnival-like racing style — loud and full of flash.

Atlanta’s abrasive surface creates unique challenges and doesn’t provide the true test of the new aero package that will be evident in the coming weeks at 1.5-mile and 2-mile tracks.

So, just hold off on those predictions. Even Johnson said so after scoring his 71st career Sprint Cup win Sunday and all but assuring himself a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

“I think next weekend in Vegas will really be a telling sign which teams are kind of geared up for the meat of the season,’’ Johnson said.

He wasn’t alone with such feelings after the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Carl Edwards, who ran toward the front before a cut tire relegated him to 12th, said that Las Vegas will provide a better challenge for drivers.

“It’s going to make it a little harder to run around people just because the cars are moving so much air,’’ he said. “If a guy pulls in front of you or you pull up behind a guy, catch a guy, he’s disturbing the air so much … now you don’t have that air to rely on, so you can’t really get any closer than three or four car lengths back.’’

The difference Sunday was that drivers could run multiple lanes from Johnson’s circuits on the bottom to Kyle Larson’s wall-hugging rides. It made Johnson’s path to the front easier each time. He made his first run after starting 37th when he was among 13 drivers who did not run a lap in qualifying because they could not pass inspection in time.

Once toward the front, Johnson often lost time on pit road. By starting deep in the field, crew chief Chad Knaus had among the last choices for pit stalls — Johnson was wedged between Edwards and Joe Nemechek. Johnson often lost a number of spots because he had to come around Edwards and had little room with Nemechek stopping in front of him.

Johnson later got by Edwards on the track about the same time Nemechek fell a lap down, making Johnson’s path on pit road easier.

Even with Johnson’s success, there’s still others to consider.

Kevin Harvick showed no signs of slowing from his championship season when he was the fastest car most of the season. Dale Earnhardt Jr. recorded his second consecutive third-place finish. Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon, fast last year, were among those who were a bit off Sunday. Keselowski finished ninth; Gordon again crashed into a concrete wall not covered by a SAFER barrier.

“We needed to be a little better,’’ Keselowski said. “It’s not a package that I particularly care for. We just need a little bit more speed I guess. We weren’t too far off. I’m pretty sure I know exactly what we’re missing, so that’s good.’’

The question is who else will find what they’re missing next week at Las Vegas or in the coming weeks?