After putting together just three top-five results in 2019, Jimmie Johnson already has a pair of top-five results in 2020, and has shown speed that isn’t reflected in his finishing results at other tracks.
While his results have been up and down (including a disqualification in the Coca-Cola 600 that dropped him from runner-up to 40th), he has contended – including nearly winning the opening stage of the first race back at Darlington before a crash just before reaching the green/white checkered.
In the other three races since the break, he has an eighth-place result at Darlington-2, was 11th at Charlotte-2 and then finished third last weekend at Bristol.
The sure-bet first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Famer hasn’t won a race since Dover in June of 2017 – a streak of 104 races without a victory – but nearly every race this season has had his fans thinking that this could be the day that he puts the No. 48 Ally Chevrolet from Hendrick Motorsports back atop the scoring tower at the end of the day.
Their hopes will probably be high again this weekend in Atlanta, where Johnson has five wins – a number that leads all active drivers – most recently back-to-back in 2015 and 2016. He’s finished in the top five in half of his 28 starts at the 1.54-mile circuit and also has 16 top 10s.
Johnson also holds the honor of having started the deepest in the field in a march to victory at Atlanta – winning from the 37th-place starting position in 2015. And leads active drivers with the most runner-up finishes at the track with four (2005, 2006, 2008, 2011).
“Atlanta is just so abrasive that if you have any imbalances in your race car, you’re over-working a particular corner or you have the wrong shock package or aero concept, whatever it is, it’s going to show up,” a confident Johnson said. “That track is so abrasive. You get one lap with grip and then everything from there is downhill.”
Johnson went on to say that they finally found out just how far off that they were lately in Atlanta and readdressed them. He expects to find the speed again on Sunday.
“We were able to really understand just how far off we were,” Johnson continued. “That was in a lot of areas and I think we quickly addressed the mechanical grip issues that we had and our Hendrick cars were more competitive throughout the year. I feel like the 9 car did an amazing job of really putting some speed in their car and being consistent and getting to victory lane. So, they were the high-water mark for the HMS cars and we’re all trying to get there. And then you add in during the off season, how the Chevrolet’s were allowed to build a new car. That was the final piece that we were missing.
“We were able to get mechanical grip in the car, but it came at a huge penalty for drag and the car wasn’t very efficient. After NASCAR did a lot of research and taking all manufacturers to the wind tunnel, they were able to put some new quality back into the build of the bodies. You add the new efficient race car that we have, the new efficient Camaro that we have, with our journey last year on the setup, we have great cars. I still think that we, as a company, have a little bit to gain on the tracks where we trim out more. Michigan would be an example of that. But when you look at Atlanta, Darlington, Fontana, these tracks with a lot of wear and require a lot of downforce and grip, we seem to have a really strong package right now.”
Now, in his final Atlanta start, the track is naming a grandstand after him.
And he has the backing of an organization that knows how to win at Atlanta – Hendrick Motorsports leads all teams with 14 victories.