Jimmie Johnson overcomes adversity to get back on track with ninth-place finish at Kansas

Leave a comment

Another race, another failed attempt to reach victory lane.

But Jimmie Johnson showed in Saturday night’s 5-Hour Energy 400 at Kansas Speedway that he’s not far at all from finally earning his first win of the 2014 season.

Johnson led 24 of Saturday’s 267 laps and ultimately finished ninth.

Now that may not seem like much of an accomplishment, but consider how many laps Johnson led in the previous four races combined: a total of just 10 (eight at Darlington and two at Talladega).

It’s also the most laps led by the driver of the No. 48 since he dominated at Martinsville, leading 296 of the 500 laps, only to finish second to Kurt Busch. What’s more, it’s Johnson’s best finish — and the sixth top-10 thus far in 2014 — since finishing third three races ago at Darlington (and then in the following two races finished 32nd at Richmond and 23rd at Talladega).

With teammate and the co-owner of Johnson’s car, Jeff Gordon, winning, you can bet Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus will be doubling up on their efforts. Now that Gordon has gotten the winless monkey off his back, that monkey is now resting squarely on Johnson’s shoulders.

That’s a big positive, as Johnson heads to his third-most successful track, Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he’s earned six of his 66 career Sprint Cup wins.

And while Johnson has not won at Charlotte since the fall of 2009, Gordon’s win won’t only motivate his own team, it will also motivate Johnson and his team.

Johnson likely could and probably would have finished higher at Kansas had it not been for clutch failure early in the race. While other drivers and teams may have been happy to finish 30th or worse with a problem like that, Johnson’s No. 48 crew found a way to keep him on the track.

And the end result, while looking just like a typical ninth-place finish in the race results, was actually a win of sorts in and of itself.

“Overcoming adversity,” Johnson said when asked after the race what stood out the most in the 267-lap event. “We didn’t have a clutch in the car so pit stops were limited and track position was a big key.

“You just really had to grind it out today and then we did and we got a decent finish.”

Compounding problems is his car was running so low on fuel that Knaus and Johnson were unable to gamble on fuel mileage like they have done so many times in the past.

Rather, Johnson came into the pits 12 laps from the finish for a splash of fuel. And while he likely gave up perhaps a chance at a top-5 finish otherwise, that he was able to get on and off pit road so quickly – and add enough fuel to get him to the end of the race – was further testimony to just how good his overall effort truly was.

“We just didn’t have that optimism on the radio (to think he could make it to the end with the fuel he had remaining), so I don’t think so,” Johnson said.

“(But) by doing that (electing to stop for a splash of gas), we were able to get a top ten (finish).”

It may not have been the elusive win Johnson has been chasing, but doing what he did – and how he did it – only served to show that the No. 48 team will get to victory lane very soon. Perhaps as early as the next points-paying event, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte on May 25.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Theriault clinches ARCA title before finale at Kansas

Getty Images
Leave a comment

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) There is no long, convoluted story about how Austin Theriault came to Ken Schrader Racing, forging a team that so dominated the ARCA Series that it captured the title simply by showing up for the finale.

“We both wanted something to do,” the folksy Schrader said with a smile and shrug before Friday night’s race at Kansas Speedway. “He didn’t have a car to drive and I didn’t have a driver.”

So, they solved each other’s problem.

Theriault hopped into the seat and proceeded to win seven times over the first 19 races, building such a lead on his nearest challenger that he sewed up the title at Kentucky. And that made for a rather enjoyable weekend at Kansas, where all the pressure was off their team.

Along the way, Theriault became the first driver to win at a superspeedway, short track, dirt track and road event in the same season, and he swept the superspeedway and short-track challenges.

If there was something to win, he won it.

“I hoped we’d have a shot at it and it’s proved out this year that we’ve really exceeded anybody’s expectations,” Theriault said. “We had some things to work on early. We kind of dusted off a bit, went back to work. We had some time between Daytona and the mile-and-a-halfs that came up later in the season, and we realized where we were strong and where we had to work.

“But in the end it came back to pure dedication, I think,” he explained. “The amount of time it took behind the scenes to make this happen.”

The 23-year-old driver from Fort Kent, Maine, knows something about dedication. He appeared to be on racing’s fast track, scoring a Truck Series ride a few years ago for Brad Keselowski, when a terrifying crash at Las Vegas left him with a broken back and sitting on the sidelines.

The best ride he could find last year was in the K&N Pro Series.

It was at a trade show in Indianapolis last December that Theriault ran into Schrader, who was busy putting together a team for this season. They had dinner a couple nights later and, Schrader said, it was his wife Ann who came away impressed by the yes-sir, no-sir driver.

“My wife doesn’t go to all the races,” Schrader said. “After we talked she said, `I like that guy. How good is he?’ She doesn’t know. I knew he was racing well in Keselowski’s truck, had an unfortunate wreck, had to sit out a bit. I told her, `That’s somebody who could make us very happy next year.”‘

Theriault delivered on that promise.

They weren’t the only ones happy Friday, either. Zane Smith earned his second pole of the season, beating teammate Sheldon Creed to earn the top spot for the Kansas ARCA 150, while 20-year-old Natalie Decker announced a full-time ride with Venturini Motorsports next season.

“This is obviously a big step in my career,” said Decker, who made six starts as a rookie this season. “I’m confident and ready for this next move. After tonight my focus shifts to next season. We’ll be ready to go at Daytona.”