Aggressive driving must be balanced with clean racing
After a tough spin at Lowe's, Jimmie Johnson puts his spin on racing teammate and points leader Jeff Gordon.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jimmie Johnson rarely makes mistakes on the race track, and he's typically flawless at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
So when the five-time Lowe's winner led 95 laps on Saturday night, everyone thought he had another dominating win locked down.
But the defending Nextel Cup champion inexplicably spun his Chevrolet midway through the race, knocking him out of contention for the victory while opening the door for teammate Jeff Gordon to win his second consecutive race.
"I was really disappointed that I spun out," Johnson said. "Just a stupid mistake on my part. It's not so much frustrating as its just a real high level of disappointment. I was just doing my thing, I felt like I was being conservative and not putting myself in a risky situation, and I just lost it.
"I can't stress enough how disappointing it was."
Johnson started on the pole and led more laps than any other driver, but the win began to slip away from him when he took four tires during a pit stop while most of the competition took just two tires or fuel only.
It dropped him back to 10th and in traffic on the restart, and just as he began his march back to the front, he lost control of his car in Turn 2 and went into a frantic spin. He miraculously avoided hitting anything, which drew wide-eyed awe from teammate Kyle Busch.
"He kept it off everything!" Busch yelled over his radio. "I saw it! Saw the whole thing. Unbelievable."
Johnson was just as amazed by the save.
"I was very proud of myself that I didn't hit anything," he said. "I was doing a lot with the brake pedal, working hard to keep it off the wall, and when I did, I was pretty pumped. But at the same time, I knew then that (Gordon) was probably going to win the race.
"So I just put my head down and tried getting back to the front."
And he did, working his way all the back to seventh when the race was stopped for 12 minutes to clean oil off the track. Johnson had his sights set on a top-five finish, but he and the other Hendrick Motorsports drivers all had a pickup problem on the final start that prevented their cars from taking off.
It dropped him back into the field, where he had to settle for 14th.
"The drama on that lost restart hurt us more than the spin did," Johnson said. "I was going to get a top-five for sure, if not for a stupid vapor lock or something. I was just frustrated by the entire night."
Johnson remained in second place in the standings, but dropped 68 points behind Gordon with just five races remaining in the Chase.
Johnson's Q&A with AP auto racing writer Jenna Fryer:
Q: Did it bother you even more that on top of your problems at Lowe's, Jeff won?
JJ: "It all depends on how these remaining races go. If he stays running like the way he has been, then this 14th-place finish may be the difference in the championship. I find it hard to believe that any driver is going to be totally clean without any problems all the way through the Chase. So far, he has been. But only time will tell."
Q: On that final restart, team owner Rick Hendrick had to get on the radio and sort of mediate between Jeff and Kyle, making sure they wouldn't wreck each other while racing for the win. Does he have to do stuff like that a lot?
JJ: "Man, I didn't even know that happened. I don't know how fired up Kyle was to go for the win, and part of that might have just been Rick being a nervous car owner. But I do remember back at Dover in, I think, 2005. Kyle and I finished 1-2, and Kyle was really, really aggressive trying to chase me down. I know it got my attention, and I know it got Rick's attention, so I am sure Rick had visions of that -- as well as some other instances where Hendrick cars have raced each other hard."
Q: Here's what I don't get -- Kyle is leaving Hendrick at the end of the season, so it doesn't really matter what he does from here on out. If he knocks Jeff out of the way, he probably gets the win and he opens the door to climb back into the Chase. So why wouldn't he get aggressive on the restart?
JJ: "Well, if you are knocking someone out of the way, just dumping people to put yourself back in the championship battle, I don't think there's a driver out there who would do that. I understand about being in second and wanting to win a race, but you have to find that balance and get everything you can as clean as you can. I don't think there's anyone out here who would do that deliberately."
Q: Heading back to Martinsville, what do you think? In the spring, you and Jeff had a really intense battle to the finish and you beat him.
JJ: "I think it's going to be a really good race for a lot of Chase drivers. I think the 20 (Tony Stewart), the 24 (Gordon), and probably the 8 (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) are going to be good. We'll be in that mix, too. And I just hope at the end of the race Jeff and I are in the same situation and I hope I win again."
Q: What did you remember about the last trip to Martinsville?
JJ: "It was just real hard short-track racing. Jeff was probably faster, and he tried to move me out of the way. The drama that was associated with that and the finish was over hard racing and the fact that he was frustrated because he lost. But I was probably just as mad as he was when he beat me in Talladega. That's just the racer in all of us."
Q: Did you and Jeff learn anything about each other after Martinsville?
JJ: "No, I wouldn't say we learned anything. But our racing has intensified since then. He's gotten pretty aggressive around me, and I race people how they race me. It seems now with the Chase, we are racing each other more than we ever have, but we have confidence about how each other can handle it. Jeff tried moving me out of the way for eight laps and couldn't, and it's affected how we race each other now.
"That happens all the time. Ryan Newman, he's one of the toughest guys to pass on the track. But when you get around Tony Stewart, unless it's nearing the end of the race, he'll just point and let you pass him. But lately, Jeff and I always end up racing each other really hard. That's all just part of the different relationships you have with everyone on the track."
Q: So, do you want to beat Jeff more than anyone else on the track?
JJ: "As of now, yes. But it's because he's the points leader. It's not that I have any type of emotion where I am out to beat him, or we have the F1 mentality where one teammate is supposed to win and the other is not and is jealous. I want to win races and championships, and I want to beat whoever I have to to make that happen. It wouldn't matter to me if it was Matt Kenseth leading the points, I'd want to beat him just as bad as I want to beat Jeff."
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press
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