Jimmie Johnson brings five-alarm urgency to Kentucky Speedway

awincze@herald-leader.comJune 28, 2013 

SPARTA — It is common knowledge in NASCAR that Jimmie Johnson's magic number is five, a product of his unprecedented quintet of consecutive Sprint Cup Series championships between 2006 and 2010.

While it comes up far less often than his legendary exploits, five holds an alternative meaning for the driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet.

Kentucky, Michigan, Chicago, Watkins Glen, and Miami-Homestead represent a rarity among NASCAR tracks in that they are the five venues left on the circuit at which the man nicknamed "Five-Time" has yet to win.

Other goals might take precedence in the No. 48 shop, but the quest to be the first to win at every track on the schedule is another race Johnson wants in his favor — hence an extra flicker of incentive heading into Saturday's Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway.

Johnson's nearest rivals in achieving that feat are his Hendrick Racing teammate Jeff Gordon, who needs only a win at Kentucky to complete NASCAR's version of a career Grand Slam, and Tony Stewart, who lacks only victories at Darlington and the Sparta tri-oval in his three-time Cup championship career.

Seeking new motivators and bending them to their will is a hallmark of Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus. Considering Johnson was fastest in final practice and set a short-lived track record during qualifying at Kentucky on Friday before the mark was broken by teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., that little added fire might already be coming into play this weekend.

"It gets me excited. There are five tracks left that I haven't won at," Johnson said Friday. "We don't talk about it amongst Stewart, Gordon or myself but I think we all secretly would love to be the first to win at every track we compete at.

"I want to get closer. I've been very close at Michigan, I've been very close at Chicago. I hope we can get one or two of them this year, and I would love to start here."

Sixteen races into the 2013 season, things have looked very much like the norm for the No. 48. Three victories, including his second career Daytona 500 triumph, seven top-five and 10 top-10 runs have given Johnson a 25-point lead in the standings over Carl Edwards with 10 races to go until the Chase for the Cup begins.

Losing his championship mantle to Brad Keselowski in the final two races last year, however, reinforced why nothing can be left on the table at any point in the 36-race grind. Thus, Johnson and Knaus aren't immune from nitpicking their form even if it has put them in command to this point.

Last weekend in Sonoma, the No. 48 team opted for just two tires on the final pit stop and subsequently watched the likes of Gordon — who took the preferred four fresh tires on the road course — charge to a top-five run while Johnson came in ninth.

"Even in the dominant position we're in, we look back at the last three or four races and see missed opportunities," Johnson said. "We know we left some bonus points on the table, plus points in general if we were in the Chase.

"Sonoma turned out OK but you can't make those mistakes. So although it looks like we're just cruising along and smiling, we have a lot of pressure on ourselves to perform at the level we need to."

Since "piling a bunch" of cars into Kentucky's walls during his Nationwide days, Johnson has learned to adjust to the track's prominent bumps, running third in the inaugural Cup race in 2011 and taking the pole en route to a sixth-place run a year ago.

With the new Gen-6 car in play this year, past experience over the surface may go out the window. The consensus among many drivers was that Turn 3 was going to be the crucial one to master in order to toe the fine line between carrying speed and smacking the fence.

"Turn 3 is just really flat getting into the corner," said Kevin Harvick, fourth in the points standings with wins at Richmond and Charlotte this year. "You have more banking as you exit the corner so ... you wind up being loose into the corner for the most part. As you go through the weekend that will be the toughest spot to navigate for sure."

Kentucky's bumps make the race a mental challenge for the teams in figuring out the right setups and lines.

There will be few moments of ease in any of the drivers' minds between now and the finale at Homestead on Nov. 17. If he can maintain his remarkable mental fortitude, Johnson can expect to add to his championship total, and maybe knock out a few remaining milestones along the way.

"With those three wins, we should be in great shape (for the Chase) but with all that in mind, we need to focus on finishing up these next 10 races as competitively as we can," Johnson said. "There is more pressure on some than others but the real pressure will come (at the start of the Chase) in Chicago and hopefully we'll be in contention at that point."

Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.

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