In his younger days, if there was something so noticeably off about Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy the way it was at the end of Friday’s practice session for the New Hampshire 301, Johnson would’ve spent hours wracking his brain to figure out what the issue was.
It was perfectly fine when he and his team unloaded it in the morning. It ran well during the early practice laps, but on the final set of tires, something felt strange.
“The car was so different that one run that something was just flat-out wrong,” Johnson said. “I mean it wasn’t even the race car that I’d drove 10 laps prior to. Something was off.”
“I thought that the right-front spring was out of the bucket, the way it felt to me. It felt like the nose of the car was really high and it just wouldn’t go down and travel and turn.”
His team had adjustments to make. Johnson had to clear his head.
So he grabbed Matt Kenseth and they hopped their bikes and took a 32-mile ride.
He made it back not even two hours later, ready to press the reset button.
“With experience, I try to just wash it away and just start over,” he said. “I came back, clean sheet of paper, tried to walk to the race car as if it was my first time in the car and didn’t have any baggage that’s carrying me. I think experience has helped me get to that spot.”
The crew couldn’t find anything wrong with the car. We did not find anything broken or wrong.
“When we got back in, everything checked out,” he said. “All we did was change tires.”
He put it all behind him and put up his best ever qualifying performance New Hampshire Motor Speedway, taking the pole with a lap of 28.430 seconds (133.971 miles per hour) in the final round of qualifying.
It was the 35th career pole for the six-time Sprint Cup champion, but his first of the season, and his first in 29 races in New Hampshire.
“Any time you’re fast, it’s a huge boost,” Johnson said. “Especially to come through the trying practice session that we had. The big question mark was, ‘What happened?’ I mean, the car was a half-second faster on scuffed tires than it was when we put the stickers on to go at the end.
“I mean, couldn’t even stay on the racing line. So something really weird went on. So to rebound from that builds a lot of confidence for us. We worked hard on this race car that we brought here. It’s a new car, so to validate that is big for the shop. So today’s a big day for us.”
Even though he’s ninth in the points (484) with two wins, six top-5 finishes and seven top-10s, the season’s been a rocky one for Johnson. He crashed into the wall 31 laps into the Quaker State 400 in Kentucky last week, failing to finish the race for the third time this season.
But starting at the front of the pack at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where track position is critical, was a chance to regain some momentum.
“This place, I’d go so far as to say it’s the most important track for qualifying track position,” Johnson said. “Short race, very difficult to pass. If fuel strategy comes into play, it’s a different dynamic and a different race, but the last few races have been races and in that situation, you need track position. The key is to keep it, but at least we’re starting with it.”
Kyle Busch will start next to Johnson on Sunday after posting a time of 28.460 (133.830 m.p.h.). He ran the fastest lap of the day in the second round 28.407 seconds (134.080), but wasn’t completely pleased with the way his car performed.
“Our car wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped it to be as far as the feeling I had with grip,” Busch said. “It was fast, though. The second round and third round were certainly high up there on the speed charts but just didn’t quite have the comfort that I was looking for out of our car to be able to push it a little bit more and get some more time out of it and actually had to give up a little bit of time because of the lack of grip that I felt.”
They’ll both have to cool off the hottest driver in the field, Brad Keselowski, who clocked in at 28.704 (132.692) to start him ninth on Sunday. He’s coming off back-to-back wins, has four victories total this season, and he’s finished in the top 10 in eight of his 13 starts in New Hampshire, with a victory in 2014.
“It’s nice to have four wins,” he said. “I wish they meant more. When it comes Chase time, I’ve got four stickers on my car and that’s about it. But beyond that, it’s a confidence booster for the group and we come here to New Hampshire with a lot of optimism because it’s a good track for us in a lot of ways.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @julianbenbow.