Jimmie Johnson, The Real Deal
by Doug Belliveau

June 11, 2002

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Jimmie Johnson prepares to tackle Pocono Raceway.
Photo by Doug Belliveau

As far as I'm concerned, I've made my decision. Jimmie Johnson is the Real Deal. Granted, his rookie season is not even half over. And things can turn around for the worse in a hurry - just ask Kevin Harvick about his sophomore year. But all indicators point to Johnson as being a Winston Cup superstar.

Johnson continued his winning ways last Sunday and had another stellar performance placing third in the Pocono 500. With Sterling Marlin's fourth-place finish, the points margin between leader Marlin and second-place Johnson remains the same, as both earned 165 points.

What's remarkable is Jimmie's consistency and ability to negotiate the tough tracks that usually befuddle many inexperienced drivers. He shows talent and racing intelligence that is far beyond his limited Winston Cup career. Pocono is usually a place where the veterans shine - guys like Jarrett, Rudd and Jeff Gordon. Johnson recognized how difficult Pocono can be: "Itıs a long day here. This is a very intense track where you can easily lose a couple of tenths and you have to stay up on the wheel all day long with your upshifting and downshifting. The guys did an awesome job in the pits today and us top four-five cars wear dead even and it was just how we got through traffic." 

Johnson finished in third place in his very first Pocono race.
Photo by Mike Marue

What is enjoyable to watch with rookies such as Johnson is the enthusiasm regarding their performance. After the race, Jimmie was (absurdly) asked if he was disappointed with a third place finish: "Iım not disappointed by any means. To be this competitive at this place, or to be as competitive as we have been everywhere, itıs just been amazing to me. And to be here at this track and run in the top five all day long, like we did, is a great accomplishment. I donıt think Iıve really been to a track thatıs more mentally taxing than here, with the upshifts and downshifts. Itıs easy to make laps, but downshifting and staying off the brake and not slowing the car down too much and carry speed through the center is the key. And itıs hard here when youıre downshifting because youıre making sure you get the car whoaıd down downshifting in a straight line. Itıs just a very mentally taxing track." Johnson continued showing his excitement after the race, "I had a blast, great to finish third. Itıs just a great day for the Loweıs team."

Johnson has shown that he can adapt to almost any track in a hurry. He described how he prepared for the Pocono race, which is a track he had never even raced at before: "We tested up here on our way to Dover and ran a lot of laps the first day. The second day we worked on qualifying runs, so luckily when we entered Happy Hour yesterday I knew the rhythm of the racetrack and we were just fine-tuning the car. And, in the beginning of the race I was real loose and I just didnıt think I needed to be overdriving the car. Just drive and get what I could get; this race is really long, and at the end we still werenıt right through turn 3; we were decent everywhere else. It seemed like the top four or five cars all day long were extremely equal and I think thatıs what NASCAR would like to see, and I believe it was a great race all day."

Johnson can rely on team owner Jeff Gordon for advice.
Photo by Mike Marue

Obviously a part of Johnson's winning formula is the team he drives for. Jimmie can rely on the vast resources of the Lowe's Chevrolet team, Hendrick Motorsports and 4-time Winston Cup Champion Jeff Gordon. "Before we came up and tested we talked about everything and different gear ratios and shifting points, how to get through the corners. But they (Hendrick Motorsports) havenıt been up here in a long time, the 24 car really, (or) anyone at Hendrick has, so it was very good for us to come up and get some data on the race track. Last time they were here was before they even had data acquisition for the cars. We went home and learned a lot as an entire organization, but I definitely picked up pointers from Jeff before I came."

By all accounts, Jimmie Johnson should have a very promising Winston Cup career ahead of him. He is currently battling for the Winston Cup championship in his rookie year. Not even Jeff Gordon was able to pull off that feat. If he keeps up his winning ways, he could even win the championship in conjunction with Rookie of the Year. Certainly that has never been accomplished before in 53 years of NASCAR.

However, both his season and his career are still very young. But if Johnson pulls off a top-five finish at Sear's Point, I believe the labeling of J.J. as the Real Deal becomes etched in concrete.

The author can be contacted nascar@autoracing1.com

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