Monday March 2nd, 2015

Three quick thoughts on Jimmie Johnson’s victory in a cold and soggy Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500:

1. JJ’s victory was improbable, yet not 

Improbable because his No. 48 Chevy was among 13 racers that failed to make it out of inspection in time to post a qualifying lap, a traffic jam that forced Johnson to start 37th. Not improbable because, at the end of the day, he’s still Jimmie Johnson and racing to the front is pretty much how he won six series championships in the first place.

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This victory is Johnson’s 71st overall and his fourth in 24 starts at Atlanta, the ninth track where he has won at least four times. The win also locks him into the Chase and spares him from suffering the grumbling that greeted last year’s 0-for-11 streak to start the 2014 season, a streak, we should note, Johnson emphatically silenced by winning three of the next four races.

It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see him start putting together a similar tear next week at Las Vegas, where, at one point, he had won four of six outings (including three in a row). If that does indeed happen, especially this early in the season, it means that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have NASCAR’s new engineering rules down pat, in which case the field might as well be racing for second place in the Chase.

2. Only in the rain could a pit stall choice make for genuinely compelling theater

And the choice was crew chief Todd Gordon’s to make after his driver, Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano, landed on the pole for this race. Normally, it isn’t much of a dilemma. (Starting first? Duh, take the first stall, the one closest to the exit.) At Atlanta, the first four stalls are covered in asphalt; the rest are concrete. On a hot day, this would be ideal placement for a pole sitter trying to reenter the field in the most effective way possible: by burying a right foot to the floor.

But on Sunday, that method was neutralized by a pervading dampness—which seemed to be more of an issue on the slicker asphalt. Tried-and-true hacks for gaining additional traction—like drizzling soda over the launch area—wouldn’t have gotten you far, so the No. 22 team didn’t bother trying. This left Logano spinning his wheels all afternoon, potentially putting undue stress on the rear gearing of his car. It wasn’t a problem for him when he was leading the race early, but as the laps added up and Atlanta’s 1.5-mile tri-oval exacted its typically steep toll on the machines that dare lay tread upon it, Logano yielded his lead to Kevin Harvick and fell back into the pack.

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All that said, Team Penske can still take away some good from the experience: 1) Logano nonetheless rallied to a fourth-place finish; 2) the conditions should be a bit more forgiving next week in Las Vegas, where the forecast for Sunday is 72 degrees. Soda drizzling weather, for sure.

3. Jeff Gordon’s rough last ride continues

For the second straight week, the retiring four-time Sprint Cup champion saw his afternoon ended by a massive late-race crash. He was running 10th during a restart with 67 laps left when Denny Hamlin got loose and collected Ryan Newman and Jamie McMurray. Gordon looked as if he might slip by them on the high line, but the chain reaction pointed McMurray’s car back up the track and into Gordon’s left side and sent his No. 24 machine steaming into the wall. The fact that the wall is made of concrete is certain to stir up a fresh round of consternation about driver safety—and only a week after Kyle Busch broke his right foot and left leg after crashing into a concrete interior wall during an Xfinity race at Daytona. Gordon, to his credit, was diplomatic about the situation afterward. It’s unlikely that others will be, though.

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