DOVER, Del.—Don’t question Jimmie Johnson’s level of confidence at Dover International Speedway.
Holding the track record of 11 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series wins is certainly enough reason to reassure the driver of the No. 48 Ally Chevrolet entering Sunday’s Gander RV 400.
But it didn’t hurt to top the speed chart in Happy Hour on Saturday either.
“Maybe I'm a fool, but just every time I come here, I feel like this,” said Johnson after posting a lap of 161.863 mph in final practice. “This is just one of those places that an athlete finds a bond with a facility or a venue that they connect with.
“I don’t care if I have only three wheels on that thing, I still feel like I would have a shot to win. I just love this place.”
Dover hosted Johnson’s last Cup victory party in 2017—69 races ago. Before the current winless streak, the seven-time champion had never experienced a drought so long--or anything close. But there hasn’t been as much change in Johnson’s racing program in such a short period of time either.
At the start of last season, Chevrolet adopted the Camaro as its car of choice. Hendrick Motorsports replaced Dale Earnhardt and Kasey Kahne with Alex Bowman and William Byron. In October, Hendrick announced Johnson and his long-time crew chief Chad Knaus would part ways at season’s end. Kevin Meendering took over the leadership role for the No. 48 team.
Chevrolet finally ended its 2019 losing streak last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway when Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Chase Elliott, won the Geico 500. Elliott and Byron start from the front row on Sunday. Although Johnson rolls off 12th, he believes Hendrick is moving in the right direction.
“You saw our speed at the plate tracks, Texas was good for our company, this weekend has been a good weekend, but at Richmond we were a bit off,” Johnson said. “We're putting pieces of the puzzle together and it seems like three of the five disciplines we have a much better handle on right now, which is very encouraging.”
Johnson was also inspired by the No. 48 team’s results in final practice on Saturday. Following rain earlier in the day, the track changed dramatically over the 50-minute session as the sun started to peek through the clouds. The crew was able to adapt and maintain a fast car throughout Happy Hour—which should prove beneficial under similar conditions on Sunday.
“All the teams are pretty smart to know that you need to keep changing every time you go out, even if the run before was really strong,” Johnson said. “We kind of kept that philosophy and stayed with the progression of the track and continued to have a lot of pace in the car.
“So, it’s amazing how fast we are going after 15-20 laps still. There is not much drop off. There is a lot of drop off when you get to a pack of cars in front of you. I think that tall spoiler gives us a lot of confidence by ourselves, but in traffic I think we are going to have less available air and some issues there.”
Johnson remains optimistic that the speed of the new high-downforce/high-horsepower package at Dover, the groove will open up on the track and promote “two or three lanes of great side-by-side racing.” While patience may come in handy for some drivers as traffic comes into play, an aggressive approach might prove more beneficial.
“I think it’s the same that we have seen for a long, long time. Just at a faster pace,” Johnson said. “Pit stops, track position, good restarts—all those core values are still as important as ever. And maybe even more important now with the big hole the cars punch in the air. All of that stuff is more of a premium, I think.
“You can’t really be patient. Again, I just think it is on a scale where we’re going to go up against that limit if it is a second faster or a second slower, based on the rules. And we're still at that limit.”