With JJ's win, NASCAR back to normal
BRISTOL, Tenn. -- After two weeks of name-calling and feuding, spoiler testing and wing bashing, closed-door meetings and even a little rain, life as we've come to know it in the Sprint Cup Series returned to normal late Sunday afternoon at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Yes, Jimmie Johnson won again.
For the third time in five races, to be exact.
Only this one wasn't exactly normal as we've known it at BMS.
First the four-time defending Cup champion made a late three-wide move to get in position for the win on a track where three years ago, before it was resurfaced, if you got outside one car you went backward. Three-wide would have been considered insane.
If that wasn't enough, Johnson won on a track where his average finish was 15.9, at one of six facilities where he'd never visited Victory Lane or finished higher than third.
Perhaps that explains why he showed as much or more emotion in his postrace scream -- "YES! YES! YES!" -- as he did in winning any of his championships or other big races. Perhaps that's why he continued his burnout up the ramp that leads to Victory Lane on top of the Goodyear building, not exactly the safest thing with so many people around unless you're really good at it.
Perhaps that's why fellow competitors left this half-mile facility grumbling "anybody but the 48 team."
"It's awesome," Johnson said. "I've watched from afar before I was in this sport when people said anybody but the 3 [Dale Earnhardt], anybody but the 24 [Jeff Gordon]. I'm awfully proud to be in that category where people say anybody but the 48."
The win was Johnson's 50th, making him the fourth fastest to reach that mark behind future Hall of Famers Jeff Gordon, Darrell Waltrip and David Pearson. Odds are he'll win No. 51 and frustrate the competition again next week at Martinsville, where he's won six times, including five of the last seven.
Johnson likes that. Frustrating the competition, that is.
He told crew chief Chad Knaus before the season one of his goals was to win a lot early to get inside people's heads because he's seen that work to his advantage before.
"I don't want to lose that advantage if we can prevent it," Johnson said after winning a race interrupted by a couple of showers. "Granted, it's awful early in the year to think about that. [But] if we can keep winning every month, every other month, stay at the tops of people's minds as we get into the Chase, you know ..."
Yes, we know. Nobody is better in the Chase. So if Johnson goes in with momentum, that magnifies the pressure on everybody else more than ever.
"The ultimate goal is to win another championship," Johnson said.
Almost as important was winning at Bristol, a place that has frustrated Johnson arguably more than any other track because of his inability to conquer it and the rich tradition it holds.
This is a place he wanted badly to win at even before he reached NASCAR's top series, like a tennis player wanting to win at Wimbledon or a golfer wanting to win at Augusta National.
"Everything around Bristol is what people focus on," Johnson said. "There are parties. The fans get excited for it. To walk into this facility and look around, you want to run well here.
"It's been a real downer for me to walk through the gates, look around [and go], 'Man, I'm going to suck today, wreck in Lap 5 today.' I really had that mindset coming in."
It's up to the best of us to knock him off the top. So it's rough. You know, they've won three times this year. Not that we need to deserve to win -- it's just that they are winning every chance they're given.” -- Kurt Busch
Maybe that's why when Johnson saw the opportunity to win on the final restart with 10 laps left, he went for it with a move not normally seen in this concrete coliseum buried among the mountains. He went to the high side to move from sixth to fourth by the second turn, then went three-wide with Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle in an attempt to take the lead before backing off.
"I knew if we sat there for a while and everybody caught us, it was going to be a slugfest," Johnson said. "I thought, 'I need to get out of here.' "
He did, picking off Biffle, then Stewart, and then pulling away with four fresh tires while everybody in contention but eventual third-place finisher Kurt Busch had two.
Busch, who led a race-high 278 laps and had the lead before the final caution, could only watch in frustration.
"To pour my heart and soul into this race to beat the 48 car ... I feel exhausted," he said. "I feel disappointed."
Busch knew Johnson was the car to beat, even if he'd never won here before. Perhaps everyone should have.
"They are every week," Busch said. "It's up to the best of us to knock him off the top. So it's rough. You know, they've won three times this year. Not that we need to deserve to win -- it's just that they are winning every chance they're given."
That frustrates the competition. That frustrates the fans. One wrote in an e-mail soon after the checkered flag: "This is a letter I have sent to NASCAR. As reporters in the sport I believe that someone should do some investigative reporting on how the 48 teams manages to always have the fastest car coming out of a caution flag with only a few laps left in a race.
"It is clear to us fans that the 48 car is not legal."
It is clear that no matter what Carl Edwards does to Brad Keselowski or Kevin Harvick says about Edwards or how many times NASCAR says "have at it, boys" -- or even if Dale Earnhardt Jr. moves into the top 12 as he did with a seventh-place finish -- the story we all keep coming back to is Johnson, Knaus and the entire 48 team are better than the rest.
It shouldn't surprise anybody if by the end of the season they've knocked Michigan, Chicago, Homestead-Miami and the two road courses -- Sonoma and Watkins Glen -- off their non-win list.
It shouldn't surprise anybody if they've won a fifth straight championship.
Someday, as team owner Rick Hendrick duly noted, people will have to recognize that Johnson is one of the best of all time.
"Winning here," Johnson said, "I think the guys, we've got something for them for the rest of the year."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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