Sunday at Kansas Speedway, the seven-time Cup champion was shown a major amount of deference by race winner Denny Hamlin, who slowed to allow the No. 48 Chevrolet to get back on the lead lap less than a mile before the end of Stage 2.
A sign of respect? Yes.
But maybe not quite the type being sought by the Hendrick Motorsports star, who recently spoke of once being “feared” on the track.
That wasn’t the case with Hamlin, Johnson said.
“Honestly, if he thought I was a threat, he wouldn’t have done it,” Johnson said with a laugh about Hamlin’s move. “So there is respect there. And I do feel there is respect off the track, but out there on the track, there is just another level of respect you have to earn through racing hard. And I guess because I didn’t seem like a threat, he let that slide.
“I’ll take it! I’m very appreciative. I don’t want to have it come across the wrong way, but if we’d been leading all day long, I don’t think he would have cut us that break.”
Johnson still made the most of it over the final half of the race. Restarting in 20th, he drove into the top five over the next 100 laps (capitalizing on a two-tire stop with 20 laps remaining.
He faded to a 10th-place finish over the last three restarts – but it still was a major improvement after running outside the top 15 for most of the first two stages.
“We just finally got the car tightened up,” Johnson said. “We were so loose, I just couldn’t run the amount of throttle needed.
“Once we got the car closer, I drove up to (the top five) and passed a ton of cars. That was cool. On the end with two tires, a lot of guys were on four, so that hurt us a little bit. We didn’t need those last few cautions. I think we were sitting in a great spot, and then the cautions started, and that caught us off.”
Still, the big break came from Hamlin. Though Johnson would have gotten back on the lead lap via the free pass, staying on the lead lap allowed him to avoid starting behind lapped cars on the ensuing restart.
“I’m just very thankful that he was so considerate,” Johnson said. “I’m not sure where that came from, but I’m very, very appreciative of it. He harassed me in a tweet a while back and mentioned something along the lines of the utmost respect, so there is a lot of respect there. I appreciate that.”
It was during the July 13 race at Kentucky Speedway when Hamlin complained about being held up by Johnson on track.
But as he has mentioned often this season (and often since his spin of Chase Elliott racing for the lead at Martinsville Speedway might have cost him a chance for the championship), the Joe Gibbs Racing driver has been rather chivalrous at times with his No. 11 Toyota.
“Just trying to be a nice guy,” Hamlin said of declining to keep Johnson a lap down. “Never can have too many friends out there, especially this point of the season. You go a lap down, it changes your race. Obviously he was up there racing in the top five there towards the end.
“Just putting another coin in the deposit box.”