CONCORD, N.C. — Jimmie Johnson is focused on chasing victory at the Coca-Cola 600. He says he’s not thinking about his championship legacy.
A win tonight would be Johnson’s fourth in NASCAR’s longest race, trailing only Darrell Waltrip’s five spring victories at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Johnson could also strengthen his series points lead with his third win this season as he chases his sixth Sprint Cup title. And a win would be a record seventh at Charlotte.
It’s a resume already worthy of NASCAR’s Hall of Fame— perhaps even in the running for NASCAR’s greatest driver — but that is not something the 37-year-old Johnson is ready to think about.
“I just don’t pay attention to it all,” Johnson said. “It’s very difficult to think about where I fit in while I’m still racing. I think of drivers’ careers ending mid 40s. I still have 10 years or so to even think about that.”
He’s got plenty of others thinking about it as Johnson’s milestones pile up. He captured his fourth Sprint All-Star race at Charlotte last week, a record.
Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, a four-time Sprint Cup champion, called Johnson’s career phenomenal.
Johnson had won several off-road racing titles when Gordon backed him to team owner Rick Hendrick. Johnson drove his first Sprint Cup race for the team in 2001 and joined the series full time the next season.
Combine Johnson’s talent with Hendrick’s resources and the skill of crew chief Chad Knaus and “the rest is really history in what his career has been, and the numbers that he has put up I think speak for themselves,” Gordon said.
Johnson’s numbers at Charlotte speak loudly, too. He won three straight Coca-Cola 600s from 2003 through 2005, a stretch that also included wins in the fall races in 2004 and 2005. Johnson won here in October 2009, tying Waltrip and Bobby Allison for the all-time mark of six Charlotte victories.
Johnson believes his success in the non-points All-Star race gives him confidence for today. His winning All-Star car is still in NASCAR’s technical section and the team couldn’t get it back in time to run in the 600.
“We have a lot to work from, but it’s still a new weekend,” Johnson said. “(The) race is much different than before. We feel like we have a good direction and we’ll see where things stack up at the end of the night on Sunday.”
Today, Sprint Cup super power Joe Gibbs Racing has three cars among the top eight starters, including pole sitter Denny Hamlin, who led qualifying with a track record of 195.624 mph Thursday night. Kenseth, who won at Darlington two weeks ago, will start third while Kyle Busch starts eighth. Busch has won 11 times at Charlotte in the Nationwide and Truck series, but never on NASCAR’s biggest stage.
Defending champion Kasey Kahne, Johnson’s teammate, will start near the front in sixth.
Kurt Busch of Furniture Row Racing looked like he had taken his second straight pole after Darlington before Hamlin caught him by about five-hundreths of a second for the top spot. Kurt Busch led 69 of the first 73 laps at Darlington before fading to 14th. He’ll give it another go tonight.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start at No. 11. He was on his way to victory in this race two years ago when he famously ran out of gas on the final lap and got passed by winner Kevin Harvick.
Kyle Busch has shown repeatedly he can win at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the Nationwide and Truck series. The question remains whether he can capture that elusive first Sprint Cup victory.
Busch dominated Saturday, racing to his sixth Nationwide Series victory of the season and record seventh career win at the 1.5-mile track. He also was Truck Series winner at the track last week, his fifth victory in that circuit at Charlotte.
Today, he looks to make it a clean sweep of all three series events with a win in the Coca-Cola 600.
Busch has finished in the top eight in 10 of the last 11 Sprint Cup races at CMS but has never won a clear source of frustration.
“Definitely” Busch said. “I have been close here so many years. Two years ago at the fall race I led a ton of laps and then Matt Kenseth passed me with like eight laps to go. I’ve certainly had some devastating moments here at this race track.”
He thinks he has a “top five” car for Sunday.
There was no doubt he had the top car Saturday.
Ten years and a day after his Nationwide debut, Busch won for the record 57th time in the series.
And he did it in dominating fashion.
Busch started on the front row and led 186 of the 200 laps. That’s the most laps led at this race since Dale Earnhardt led 194 in 1986.
Busch managed several late restarts to break a tie with Mark Martin for the most Nationwide victories at the track.
“Mark is really, really good in the Nationwide series and there’s a lot of things I’m beating him at, which is cool,” Busch said. “This is cool for us and great for this team. It’s fun to come to Charlotte. It’s my favorite track.”
With 13 laps to go Busch beat Kasey Kahne off the restart and was never challenged the rest of the way with the clean air helping him cruise to the finish line.
“I got to the outside and just didn’t get the run,” Kahne said of the final restart. “It was over at that point. Kyle Busch is tough to beat in this series.”
Busch actually stole a page from Kahne’s book late in the race, noticing his primary competitor had found success and was gaining ground on him when he moved up to the top of the track.
“I hadn’t been up there all day, so it was a little scary,” Busch said.
Once Busch made the move his lead began to expand over Kahne.
Four of the top five finishers were Sprint Cup drivers as Kahne was second, followed by Joey Logano, Kyle Larson and Kevin Harvick.
“We have to find a way to beat that Kyle Busch guy, but he’s pretty good,” Logano said.
Nationwide Series points leader Regan Smith was 10th.
Former X Games star Travis Pastrana endured a scary moment late in the race when the back of his No. 60 Ford hit the outside and spun across the track and hit the infield wall head-on.
But Pastrana was able to get out of his car and walk away. He said he felt fine, a testament to some of the safety measures NASCAR has installed over the years.
“I was fighting for that lucky dog spot,” Pastrana said. “But our car was free at the beginning of the run.”
Michael Annett, racing for the first time since his crash at Daytona in February, finished 17th.