‘Bring on Dover’: Jimmie Johnson looks to add to monster legacy

Jimmie Johnson answers questions during a press conference in the media room.

DOVER — Jimmie Johnson’s beard is becoming a littler grayer, the wins are not coming nearly as often and Lowe’s — the longtime primary sponsor on his No. 48 Chevrolet — is leaving his Hendrick Motorsports race team at the end of this season.

These are all reasons for cause and concern that Johnson, a seven-time Cup Series champion, might be nearing the end of the road in a career that started in 2002.

However, Johnson did show some fire from within in trying to execute a last-corner pass of Martin Truex Jr. while going for the win on the new Charlotte Road Course last Sunday.

Unfortunately for Johnson, he spun his race car out in the final chicane and slid into Truex, which not only handed the victory to Ryan Blaney, but knocked Johnson out of playoff contention and a shot at an unprecedented eight Cup Series championship.

While Johnson might not have won last weekend, he did show that there is still some racing desire left in his 43-year-old frame.

And now he heads to his favorite track, Dover International Speedway, in search of his 84th career victory in Sunday’s Gander Outdoors 400 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race (2 p.m., NBCSN).

As for Charlotte, Johnson can only look back and think about what might have been. After all, the driver has not won a Cup Series race since June 2017 at Dover.

“I was more worried about the win than anything else,” Johnson said after Sunday’s Charlotte race. “I had been so good into that final braking zone, I really felt like I could put some pressure on (Truex) and take a shot at it.

Jimmie Johnson drives his 48 car during Cup practice at Dover on Friday.

“I got out of the chicane on the back straightaway better than he did and put some pressure on him. I got him loose and off the bottom and I thought that was my chance.”

Truex, who angrily slammed into the rear end of Johnson’s car on the cool-down lap after the checkered flag waved, was left steaming.

“Desperation on (Johnson’s) part and pretty stupid, really, if you think about it,” Truex said, “because he was locked into the next (playoff) round, and now he’s out. So, my guess, if there’s a silver lining, that’s it.”

Looking back on it, Johnson said he should have thought twice about his gamble. However, it did prove to his fans and his race team that the driver is still hungry to win.

“I took myself out of a shot at the championship and obviously affected (Truex’s) day, which I feel bad about,” Johnson said. “I wish I wouldn’t have been so focused on a race win and I could have transferred and kept my championship hopes alive, but we had such a good car and just one of those split-second decisions to race for the win instead of for the points, and it bit me.”

While Johnson is no longer among the 12 drivers racing for this year’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup championship, he could still grab headlines by snapping a career-long 52-race losing streak on Dover’s high-banked, one-mile oval.

It’s not a scenario that’s out of the question at Dover. He simply owns the place.

When Johnson finally does decide to hang up his steering wheel, a statue of the driver could easily be placed near Miles the Monster, which stands tall outside the fourth-turn grandstand at Dover International Speedway.

Consider that Johnson leads all drivers with 11 career victories at Dover and has 17 top-five finishes and 24 top-10s in 33 career starts at the track and he’s an obvious favorite to win on Sunday.

“Dover is my favorite track — it’s my best track,” Johnson said. “It suits my driving style because it’s the only track we race on that reminds me of my motocross or off-road roots with the transitions into and off the corners.”

When Johnson drove to his last win at Dover in June 2017, he was wearing a helmet that paid tribute to legendary driver Cale Yarborough, who he tied with his 83rd career victory that day.

There is no telling yet if Johnson has anything like a special helmet prepared for this weekend, but if he does conquer the Monster Mile yet again, he will tie Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip with his 84th career win.

The numbers are humbling to the native of El Cajon, California.

“First of all, to be here with 83 wins and have a chance to move into number 84, it’s just special to be in this position (with) how awesome Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip were in their day — and are — in how much they mean to this sport,” he said.

“Where I sit is just an unbelievable mark in its own. And I certainly hope to move past that and move on, but time will tell.”

Johnson appears to have at least two more seasons to try and capture that elusive eighth championship after his crew chief Chad Knaus signed a contract extension this summer to remain with the No. 48 race team through the 2020 season.

Knaus has been by Johnson’s side throughout all the triumphs and the recent difficulties. He said there is no question from either about the effort being put in.

“I think Jimmie and I, we have gotten to the point where we really understand one another,” said Knaus. “There is not a big question on the effort or the amount of effort that is going in from one side nor the other.

“We deeply care for one another, obviously, families, daughters, and I have a son coming, so we have grown a lot together through life, and I think that has a lot to do with it.”

With his place in NASCAR history already secured, Johnson said the team is committed and doing everything in its power to return to the top of the mountain.

“If we knew what button to push, we would have kept that five (championships) in a row streak alive and kept going,” Johnson said. “By no means am I content with where I’m at and where this team is at in our performances, but we can’t work any harder.

“Manufacturer. Driver. Crew Chief. Team. Organization. We are literally working around the clock and doing anything and everything we can. So, at some point you have to say, we’re all in. We just need time. We’ll get there.

“Bring on Dover.”

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