WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — Jimmie Johnson’s quest to win a record fourth straight Cup title remains intact, but in the back of his mind. Front and center is winning on a road course.
Johnson has failed to find Victory Lane in 15 career starts over the sweeping courses at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, the only road races on the Cup schedule, and for the former champion off-road racer, that lack of success grates like nothing else.
“It’s been shocking to me. It really gets under my skin,” said Johnson, who began racing motocross at age 5 and has won six off-road championships. “It’s surprising that I have not been better on a road course in a Cup car. I think that we’re getting closer and closer. At Sonoma (in June), we overcame a lot and finished fourth. It left me extremely optimistic for this race.”
So, too, did qualifying. Johnson won his first road-course pole Friday, putting him in the catbird seat — at least at the start of today’s 90-lap race around the 11-turn, 2.45-mile circuit in upstate New York.
The trick will be to remain there, and with Kurt Busch starting alongside Johnson on the front row, that might be difficult. The two spun together and tangled at Sonoma in June, and Busch was fuming with Johnson after some late-race bumping at Chicagoland last month.
Factor in aggressive Marcos Ambrose, who starts right behind the leaders in fourth, and the chance for an early altercation rises. Ambrose finished third here a year ago after starting last and knows this might be his best chance at getting that first Cup victory.
“This place is going to be pretty interesting,” Juan Pablo Montoya said. “If you ratchet it up, you’re going to DNF.”
It might not take long for tempers to flare. The first turn at Watkins Glen International is a bumpy 90-degree right-hander with a large runoff area, and it represents one of the prime places to pass.
“You can go four-wide into turn 1 and not pay a huge consequence,” Kurt Busch said. “But four-wide is starting to push it. The guy on the inside is going to win, the guy on the outside is going to end up in the fence.”
Blame Jeff Gordon the turmoil in that turn over the past decade. He opened a lot of eyes when he passed Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace, two of NASCAR’s most-accomplished road racers, in a daring move in that turn when he began his dominance on the road courses in the late 1990s.
There have been plenty of copycats since.
“You’ve got tons of room, so guys get pretty aggressive getting down in there,” said Gordon, who has a NASCAR-record nine road wins, four at Watkins Glen. “Some guys will misjudge the braking and overshoot it. Other guys will take it three wide and four wide. There’s a lot of crazy stuff. I guarantee if you’re leading the race, you won’t want to see a caution.”
Cup drivers have made impressive advances in road racing in the past decade, in part by using specialists from other series, like Ron Fellows and Boris Said, as instructors.
Now, seeing them in the lineup for Sunday’s race isn’t as much of a concern.
“We’ve had those guys come in and teach us things,” said Kyle Busch, who won a NASCAR-record three road races in 2008, the two in Cup and at Mexico City in the Nationwide Series. “Ultimately, them teaching us and helping us out has sort of brought the field a lot closer together. It’s harder for those guys to find an advantage.”
Among those who will be searching for any kind of edge are teams in contention to make the Chase for the championship. Only five races remain until the cutoff — the top 12 drivers in the standings qualify for the 10-race postseason — and Kyle Busch in 13th is only 101 points behind the 12th man, Greg Biffle.
“The closer we get to the Chase, the more intense it’s going to be,” said Carl Edwards, who sits sixth in the standings but will start 33rd. “I believe we have yet to see the truly exciting side of double-file restarts, which I feel is going to involve about 15 of the leaders at one of these race tracks.
“I hope somehow we can get around it when it happens. It’s going to be bad,” Edwards said. “And there’ll be double-file restarts, one- or two-lap sprints at the end, so that could have a huge impact. We’re prepared for that.”
With less than eight laps left in last year’s race, David Gilliland and Bobby Labonte were involved in an 11-car crash entering the front straightaway that resulted in a 43-minute red flag.
“It is going to be very interesting,” said Martin, 10th in the standings despite a series-high four victories. “The race to make the Chase is definitely more stressful (than the Chase). You don’t want to be excluded, especially when you feel like your team should be in there.”
Matt Kenseth might be the most concerned. He’s just one point ahead of Biffle and will start 42nd.
“For about six or eight teams, it’s going to be sort of a tense time, especially about conditions you can’t control,” Martin said.