HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. – Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth is calling this weekend’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA Texas 500 festivities the “Wild Asphalt Circus.” While the action on the track is sure to be wild, new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship points leader Jimmie Johnson hopes it’s anything but a circus.
Johnson heads to the 1.5-mile oval first in the standings by a mere two points over second-place Brad Keselowksi. While the duo is certainly in a better position with three races remaining than third-place Clint Bowyer, who’s 26 points out of the lead, and fourth-place Kasey Kahne, who’s 29 points out, even a circus clown can figure out that anything can happen in a Chase that has seen attrition claim valuable points from nearly all of its competitors at one time or another the last seven weeks.
Anything can certainly happen at the wickedly fast Texas track, and Johnson knows that first-hand. In 2009, he was involved in a wreck on lap three that sent his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet to the garage for extensive repairs. He ended the race in 38th place but was able to return to the track in relatively quick fashion thanks to another stellar repair job lead by car chief Ron Malec.
Johnson drove to a variety of finishing positions at Texas during his five consecutive Sprint Cup championship seasons from 2006 to 2010. He pulled off a runner-up finish in 2006 and won in 2007. He then walked a tightrope from 2008 to 2010 with finishes of 15th, 38th and ninth, respectively. While he may have been playing with fire with the latter finishes, he did leave Texas with the spotlight on him, either leading the points, as he did in 2008 and 2009, or in second place, as he did in 2010.
Knowing that anything can happen should create a three-ring circus-type atmosphere for fans, regardless of extracurricular activity the track has planned, adding to the drama that has already permeated the 2012 Chase. And while the rest of the field may be hoping to tame the lions that lead the No. 48 team, Johnson and crew know the best way to avoid trouble is to do what the tightrope walkers do – focus on the goal ahead, never looking down, never looking back, with eyes aimed squarely on the prize at the end of the line.
Do you enjoy going to Texas? “I really like the area. We’ve got some good friends who live there. (Wife) Chani is from Oklahoma, so sometimes we have quite a group, but it’s always fun. I love Mexican food, so we always hit our favorite spots when we’re there, too. I also think the track does a good job. Eddie (Gossage, Texas Motor Speedway president) and his staff always make it entertaining. They also have a passionate fan base, which is always fun, so I really do look forward to going to Texas.”
Talk about how the Texas racing surface backs up against some of the other mile‑and‑a‑half tracks on the circuit. “It’s a little bit older, so we have a higher tire wear. Most cases, I don’t want to say you’ll never take two, but four tires really makes a big difference there. We’ll race from the line to the wall, something we weren’t able to see at Kansas. This new asphalt we have at places like Charlotte, Michigan, Kansas, Phoenix, it doesn’t wear the tire and the car gets really nervous. There’s a lot of grip. When you get close to the edge of traction, the car gets nervous and starts wandering around a little bit and then spins out on you. Texas doesn’t have that feeling. You can actually slide the car, drift it around. It’s really just the interaction between the tire and the surface itself. Texas, although it’s fast and plenty challenging, you can at least drift it a little bit and not get in trouble.”
You’ve said that this is a stressful time. You’ve been through this stress many times. Have you found each year you’re better able to handle it and perform because of that knowledge? “Without a doubt, experience is so helpful. My friends, after we were able to win the first, second, so on and so forth, everybody would share with me through the season how stressed I was. I knew I was stressed, but I thought I was hiding it well. Year one, I wasn’t hiding it well. By year five, I found a way to enjoy myself down the stretch in the final race. That has led to this year. Last year, I didn’t enjoy myself because we weren’t performing like we wanted to. It’s hard to have fun when you don’t get the results you want. This year, we’ve been working hard, the results are there. It’s been even more fun and more relaxed and I feel we’re doing a better job as a result.”