With three wins in his pocket, Jimmie Johnson has no need to worry about making the Chase. But he knows that not everyone in the Sprint Cup garage is in his position.
This weekend’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 on the Sonoma Raceway road course has been targeted by multiple winless drivers as their best opportunity yet to win and get in the post-season.
And should he find himself either holding back or running with those winless drivers – particularly in a restart situation – Johnson is counting out on one thing: Trouble.
“On restarts, we know that there’s going to be chaos in [Turns] 7 and 11,” he said today at Sonoma before practice got underway. “You go in there and you just put your head against the back of the headrest and wait to get drilled from behind.
“Once you get spread out and get going – once you get through the opening lap or two – we get spread out and it’s really an individual race. You’re challenging yourself and your car and you just get in that zone and go.
“But restarts breed so much chaos around here, so no one’s safe. I’ve seen guys in eighth or 10th pull out of line and pass, wheel-hop [a corner], and clean out the guy in second and third. There’s nowhere safe on this track on restarts.”
While NASCAR regulars have improved their road racing skill by an impressive margin over the years, it appears that the level of aggressiveness on such tracks has gone up as well.
Throw in the fact that there are only a few passing zones on the Sonoma circuit, and it makes drivers that much more anxious to take any chance they can get.
“Everybody up and down the line is trying to set up a pass, so there are moments where you’ve worked hard, been patient, and are making your move, and then you don’t realize that the car behind you has set up a move on you,” Johnson explained.
“Or maybe in the process of getting along side someone, you’ve slowed down your section of the road and now everyone back behind you is thinking, ‘Maybe I can go three-wide, four-wide.’
“Or the line stops too quick, just like in bumper-to-bumper traffic…[For] the person fourth or fifth in line, the reaction time isn’t there, and pow – you’ve turned somebody around.”
Sometimes, such incidents can’t be helped. But then there’s the matter of blocking and what each driver chooses to do about it.
From Johnson’s perspective, his peers are getting less likely to be patient in that scenario.
“I think what aggravates most is the blocking and then after a restart or two and a few laps of blocking, you’re just going to make that decision: Are you going to tolerate it or are you going to send them [spinning],” he said. “And it’s turned into sending them, lately.”