A win tonight would be Johnson’s fourth in NASCAR’s longest race, trailing only Darrell Waltrip’s five spring victories at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Johnson could also strengthen his series points lead with his third win this season as he chases his sixth Sprint Cup title. And a win would be a record seventh at Charlotte.
It’s a resume already worthy of NASCAR’s Hall of Fame — perhaps even in the running for NASCAR’s greatest driver — but that is not something the 37-year-old Johnson is ready to think about.
“I just don’t pay attention to it all,” Johnson said. “It’s very difficult to think about where I fit in while I’m still racing. I think of drivers’ careers ending mid-40s. I still have 10 years or so to even think about that.”
He’s got plenty of others thinking about it as Johnson’s milestones pile up. He captured his fourth Sprint All-Star race at Charlotte last week, a record.
Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, a four-time Sprint Cup champion, called Johnson’s career phenomenal.
Johnson had won several off-road racing titles when Gordon backed him to team owner Rick Hendrick. Johnson drove his first Sprint Cup race for the team in 2001 and joined the series full time the next season.
Combine Johnson’s talent with Hendrick’s resources and the skill of crew chief Chad Knaus and “the rest is really history in what his career has been and the numbers that he has put up I think speak for themselves,” Gordon said.
Johnson’s numbers at Charlotte speak very loudly, too. He won three straight Coca-Cola 600s from 2003 through 2005, a stretch that also included victories in the fall races in 2004 and 2005. Johnson won here in October 2009, tying Waltrip and Bobby Allison for the all-time mark of six Charlotte victories.
“How do I describe his career? Do we have that much time?” said Matt Kesenth, who leads the series with three victories this season.
Johnson believes his success in the non-points all-star race gives him confidence for tonight. His winning All-Star car is still in NASCAR’s technical section and the team couldn’t get it back in time to run in the 600.
“We have a lot to work from, but it’s still a new weekend,” Johnson said. “(The) race is much different than before. We feel like we have a good direction and we’ll see where things stack up at the end of the night on Sunday.”
NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France gave an update on the sport’s Gen-6 car, which was put in use this year and he says has brought tighter, closer racing to the tracks.
“That’s the hallmark of NASCAR,” France said. “We boldly say that. We don’t talk about that’s sort of part of it, that’s the steak on the plate for us. Our fans have come to expect us to deliver on that that as much as possible.”
Expect Johnson to get pressured from many fronts during the race.
Sprint Cup super power Joe Gibbs Racing has three cars among the top eight starters, including pole sitter Denny Hamlin, who led qualifying with a track record of 195.624 mph Thursday night. Kenseth, who won at Darlington two weeks ago, will start third while Kyle Busch starts eighth. Busch has won 11 times at Charlotte in the Nationwide and Truck series, but never on NASCAR’s biggest stage.
Defending champion Kasey Kahne, Johnson’s teammate, will start near the front in sixth.
Kurt Busch of Furniture Row Racing looked like he had taken his second straight pole after Darlington before Hamlin caught him by about five-hundreths of a second for the top spot. Kurt Busch led 69 of the first 73 laps at Darlington before fading to 14th. He’ll give it another go tonight.
“We know we’ve got some good things going right now,” he said.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start at No. 11. He was on his way to victory in this race two years ago when he famously ran out of gas on the final lap and got passed by winner Kevin Harvick.
Danica Patrick is running her second Sprint Cup race at Charlotte. She finished 30th in 2012 and hoped to build on that in his first full season in the series. However, her engine was leaking oil during Saturday’s first practice session and her team was going to change it out, moving her to the back of the field for Sunday night.
Johnson can’t escape some critics. He jokingly took aim at them after his all-star win, saying he was simply “lucky.”
“That’s what people say. There’s no talent involved, we just got lucky tonight,” he said back on May 17.
If Johnson won’t tout his achievements, others in the garage are happy to do it.
“People can say whatever they want about him, but I don’t know how you can’t say that he’s not the best ever,” Kenseth said.
Johnson will think about those sorts of accolades later on when he’s finished winning races. There are too many standouts through the years, Johnson says, who have had wonderful careers and he’s simply happy that his name is mentioned among them.
“We just have the questions and the conversations” about who’s the greatest driver, Johnson said. “I’m glad we have those conversations in our sport.”