- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Not surprisingly, all eyes will be on Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet when the Coca-Cola 600 gets under way.
And the fact that Johnson is coming off a win in the Nextel All-Star Challenge is just a small part of the equation. As is the fact that his car is sponsored by the same company that has its name on Lowe's Motor Speedway.
Instead, people will be watching to see if Johnson can win the 600 for the fourth straight year. If so, he'll have won the last five points races at LMS and six of the last seven races at the track.
Winning at his sponsor's track is big, but that's not the only reason his LMS success is so special.
"I think just in general to be able to hang on to something at a particular racetrack for the length of time we have is pretty special," Johnson said. "I've had other success at Pocono and Dover, New Hampshire, I've done that in the course of a year, but to come back and repeat it year after year is tough to do.
"I'm really proud of the fact that we've been able to continue to do it in Charlotte."
The Challenge win has offered proof that no matter how many times you change the actual racing surface, he's still got a handle on the 1.5-mile facility. Johnson has won when the track was wearing out, he won last year after it was ground before each race, creating tire issues he managed to avoid, and he's won now that it's been completely repaved.
And he's won on various tire compounds, proving no tire is too hard to keep him from Victory Lane.
There is one common denominator, though, and that's the track's design.
"It still has the same transitions, [the] banking is similar," Johnson said. " Granted the surface is different and requires a different setup, but the line really I think is what I've always been to figure out at that racetrack. I just stick to the line I think I need to run, the rhythm of driving the track, we adjust to it.
"After a matter of time and understanding the new surface, we make the right adjustments and get it to where I can drive it how I want to around there and it works. We go to some tracks, get it to drive how I want it to, and it sucks. But Charlotte has been working out."
Winning at Charlotte might look easy where Johnson is concerned, but he said that was hardly the case after the track was ground (a process the track calls "levigating") before both races a year ago.
He won last year's 600 on the last lap after a battle with Bobby Labonte and said it wasn't until late in the event that he figured out the best way to get around the new surface.
Johnson said he's always willing to experiment with different styles on the track, and said crew chief Chad Knaus is also willing to roll the dice.
"Chad is very aggressive on pit road," Johnson said. "He's not afraid to make multiple adjustments and really try to find something directionally with the chassis and setup on it, adjustments he can make on pit road."
Needless to say, there will be 42 other drivers dreaming of a way to outmaneuver Johnson and his crew.
And whomever winds up in Victory Lane will have overcome not only the harder tires, but the 14-gallon fuel cells that will have drivers pitting much more frequently than when teams have with the traditional 22-gallon fuel cell in their cars.
Tony Stewart said it will seem as if the race will never end due to the frequency of pit stops. But that's not the only challenge drivers face as the race starts in daylight and ends under the lights.
"You start at what's typically a real hot part of the day and the track is slippery without a whole lot of grip," Stewart said. "You're basically just trying to stay on the lead lap, and with each pit stop, you're adjusting your car to keep up with the changing track conditions. You're making sure you keep some adjustability built into your setup, so that when the sun goes down and the track really starts changing, you're able to adjust your car accordingly.
"From the start of the race, on each and every pit stop, you're working on your race car trying to make it the best that it can be for the end of the run. These teams are so good nowadays that every time they come in to work on their race car, they're going to make it better. You have to constantly communicate with your crew chief and your race team and tell them what you need the car to do that it's not doing, or what it is doing that you don't like. That's the biggest challenge."
It's a challenge Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have seemingly mastered. And that's why everyone will be watching to see if they can do it again.
Teammate Jeff Gordon has an ownership stake in Johnson's car, but he'll be searching for his fourth career 600 win and his fifth win overall at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
So he can be forgiven if he doesn't want to see his friend in Victory Lane yet again.
"Jimmie really has a knack for getting everything out of the car here," Gordon said. "You never really know why a driver and a team just click at a place, but they have really hit on something here. Sure, it's nice to see a teammate winning. And I'll pull for him to win if there's no chance that we'll pull into Victory Lane. But this team wants to win, and he's part of the competition."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com
All eyes will be on Jimmie Johnson when the Coca-Cola 600 starts Sunday. And why not? He is the man to beat, writes Mark Ashenfelter.