|Jimmie Johnson clawed his way back to win, and got a special gift. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)|
Emotions in motion
Johnson gets back in control at NHMS
LOUDON, N.H. — There wasn’t much that seemed to rattle Jimmie Johnson during the first 294 laps of his victory in yesterday’s Lenox Industrial Tools 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Johnson kept his composure when a faulty socket spring on an air gun cost him track position during a pit stop in the first third of the race. It dropped Johnson from second to ninth as he lost seven seconds to the leaders. No matter. Johnson spent the next 147 laps grinding his way back to the front, moving into second on Lap 252, then blowing past Jeff Burton for the lead on a restart with 14 laps to go.
“To get back from that was going to be a challenge and we knew that,’’ said crew chief Chad Knaus. “Jimmie did a good job of especially keeping his head, and getting through traffic when he could.’’
The reigning four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion managed to keep his cool. Until, that is, Johnson nearly lost it with seven laps to go when Kurt Busch rattled his cage with a bump-and-run maneuver in Turn 4 that knocked Johnson out of the lead. With his wife, Chandra, home in North Carolina a week from delivering the couple’s first child, Johnson was behind the wheel of his No. 48 Chevrolet ready to have a cow after Busch moved him out of the way.
“Yeah, inside the car I was livid,’’ Johnson said. “I was so [ticked] off that he got into me, and I almost lost it at one point.’’
Johnson temporarily lost control of his emotions, and nearly his car.
“The tires started chattering and that’s usually when you’re turned around,’’ he said. “Once I got back going and I was still in second, I thought, ‘Man, I hope I catch you. I look forward to this if I catch you.’ My incentive was not necessarily to pass him.’’
It was to wreck Busch, pure and simple. “All I had to do was get to his bumper and I was going to win the race, if he gave me that option by moving me out of the way,’’ said Johnson, who measured up Busch over the next five laps, nibbling at his bumper, before getting his comeuppance with two laps to go. “I just sat there as I put together a good lap or two, I saw that I caught him, and [figured] this is going to work out just fine.’’
It worked out as Johnson had planned, but only after cooler heads prevailed.
Johnson executed a bump-and-run on Busch and drove away for his second win in a row, after posting the first road-course victory of his career last weekend at Infineon Raceway. Johnson’s victory yesterday, the 52d of his career and third in 17 starts at NHMS, tied Denny Hamlin for the series lead with five this season.
Tony Stewart, who started 25th and ran as low as 33d, came back to nudge out Busch on the last lap for second. Busch wound up third, while Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top five.
“The 48 is strong,’’ Busch said. “I was hoping to beat them today with some raw, short-track racing. He beat us with raw speed. We just need a little bit more of that down the stretch run here, and stay away from those bad days.’’
Although he won three of the first five races of the season, Johnson stumbled over a five-race stretch in May in which he recorded an average finish of 26th and wrecked at Talladega and Darlington to tumble to seventh in the standings.
While his demise was greatly exaggerated, Johnson seemed to signal he was back, ready to contend for a fifth consecutive Sprint Cup championship after his back-to-back wins.
“I don’t think we really went anywhere,’’ said Johnson, who remained second in the points, 105 behind Harvick. “You know, there are certain tracks that we’re looking for a little speed at and that’s just the way it always goes. And I found that on those tracks, I was just driving over the limit of the vehicle and over my head thinking — a little cocky — I can slide this car around all day long and get away with it, and it bit me a couple of times. So that led to poor finishes.’’
When Busch bumped him, Johnson seemed hellbent on getting his vengeance even if it meant wrecking his car and bringing it back to the garage on the back end of a tow truck.
“I was out of my rhythm, out of synch, furious, and that really helped me focus,’’ Johnson said. “So I went back to my rhythm and doing my thing, and when I got two or three corners behind me, a lot of that frustration went by, left, and my goal was just get close enough to him, because I won this race. I was going to pay him back.’’
When that opportunity presented itself, Johnson said, “I knew that I was better than [Busch] was, and in three or four laps my blood pressure returned to a normal state and I handled it in the correct manner.’’
And that was to get to Victory Lane first before letting out his emotions.
Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.