Johnson arrives at Charlotte ready to win

CHARLOTTE, NC - MAY 17: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet, stands in the garage during qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 17, 2019 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Dressed in shorts, a polo and his sponsor Ally’s ballcap, Jimmie Johnson looked comfortable and right at home Friday afternoon meeting with members of the media before qualifying at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Johnson should be comfortable.

His four victories in Saturday night’s annual Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race (at 8 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is best all-time. And his four wins in the sport’s longest race of the year, next week’s Coca-Cola 600 – as well as his eight regular season Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series wins overall at the 1.5-mile Charlotte oval – is tops among active drivers too.

The statistic that Johnson may be most mindful of, however, is that he hasn’t won a regular season race in two full years – the longest such streak in his 83-victory, seven series championship, NASCAR Hall of Fame-bound career.

These Charlotte high banks have been especially good to Johnson in the past. So some of that positive juju would be especially appreciated in this weekend’s $1 million-to-win All-Star exhibition to prime Johnson’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team for next weekend’s Memorial Day endurance.

A win is a WIN for this team.

“It is challenging, there’s no way around it,” Johnson conceded. “Every week I’m able to go to the shop and check in and see what we’re working on and how hard everybody is working. You get excited for the week. You get to Friday and I let things roll off my shoulders and hit the weekend.

“I was pretty frustrated when I got out of the car in Kansas (last week). The first half or first two-thirds of the race was pretty bad. I rallied back to sixth, which was respectable. And then I realized I was in fourth and before that restart, I was hopeful our outside lane could advance and maybe have a look at a win or a second-place finish behind Erik (Jones).

“It was nice to be back in that moment but certainly the frustration is coming through. I’ve never worked so hard to run where I do. I’ve never seen our team work so hard to not be able to get back to where we want to in a short period of time. That’s the hard part.”

Since Johnson’s last regular season win – a victory in the June, 2017 Dover International Speedway race – he has 22 top-10 finishes. The closest he’s been to another win is third at Dover in the Fall, 2017 race and third in last year’s Bristol, Tenn. Spring race.

He did win The Clash in February – Daytona Speedweeks’ kickoff non-points race.

Since then Johnson has earned five top-10s through the opening 12 races. His best weekend included a pole position at Texas Motor Speedway in April and a fifth-place finish. His 60 laps led in that race is also a 2019 season high.

He’s certainly been building momentum. His sixth place effort at Kansas last weekend put him back into the Playoff top 16 in the standings (16th).

This week – as happens from time to time – the 43-year old Johnson was asked whether he’s considered retirement. With a smile indicative of his motivation and expectation, he firmly assured everyone that it’s not time.

“I just don’t have anything signed beyond 2020, so those conversations usually start a year out so Rick and I will get into that before long,” Johnson said. “The real reality is I don’t have 10 years left.”

Then he added with a laugh, “I probably don’t have five years left so being impatient in the comment that I made there is there’s less runway than there was when I first started.

“I’ve been able to be patient through my career in a lot of ways and it’s served me well. I feel like now, here I am, I don’t have that luxury any longer if I want a shot to win eight or nine (championships) or whatever it is; more wins. I don’t have that luxury.

“This year is almost halfway through. And then, next year will be here before we know it. So I’m just aware of my opportunities to accomplish what I want to. There are just fewer of them left and we need to get after it.”

Charlotte Motor Speedway is a place where Johnson certainly “got after it” last year. He famously collided with then race leader Martin Truex Jr. on the final lap of the debut ROVAL road course race during the Playoffs. He was going for the win.

It was a firm reminder that he isn’t racing to finish second. Not then and not now.

And even with all the shiny trophies and high expectation, Johnson knows the question of “when will he win again” remains inevitable.

“You’ve got a job to do and that’s part of it,” Johnson said smiling when he was asked Friday about his frustration level.

“I’ve been racing my whole life. I’ve been through all the ups and downs. I’ve sat at this very desk [in the media center] with a lot of highs and enjoying those moments. Racing is racing. You’re going to have all that stuff.

“But, I’m not smart enough to quit. I’m not smart enough to walk away. I love what I do. I want to be out there racing. I love driving for Rick (Hendrick) and Ally has been an amazing sponsor. So, just keep on digging.

“That’s all I can do.”

Greg Engle