Jimmie Johnson spent the first weekend in June shuttling by helicopter between Pocono's Sprint Cup event and Watkins Glen, where he was driving in the Grand-Am Series for Gainsco/Bob Stallings Racing. The schedule required six 45-minute flights over two days and netted Johnson 12 practice laps and 30 race laps in a Chevrolet-powered Daytona Prototype on the famed 3.45-mile road course.
Why make the extra effort to run a race where points and money are of no consequence in the midst of an already-hectic Cup schedule?
To become a better road course racer.
It bothered Johnson, 34 and the holder of a record four straight Cup titles, that he hadn't been able to win on a road course in Cup. While it wasn't a game-changer for him, it was a serious ambition, and one he saw come to fruition (in a roundabout way) Sunday at Infineon Raceway.
The argument can be made that Marcos Ambrose lost it with a colossal mistake, stalling and stopping on course, more than the No. 48 Chevrolet won it. But JJ's dominance was on display from the start. Johnson started on the front row and led 55 of the opening 57 laps before coming out just behind Ambrose during a sequence of green-flag pit stops in which they stopped on different laps. Strategy got Ambrose to the front ahead of Johnson, not a speed advantage.
Still, Johnson deserved to win because he was there to capitalize. You've heard that rationale many times before, but it particularly applies to Johnson at Infineon. He'd led only 30 laps in eight previous starts at Infineon and had a 17.3 finishing average, his best finish coming a fourth last year. Johnson had never been there to take advantage of a mistake by the leader until Sunday.
It has been a work in progress for Johnson to learn the nuances of road course racing. Though he has raced for Stallings' team in the past three Rolex 24s at Daytona, run a couple of weeks before the 500, the only other road course racing had been Cup's two annual stops at Infineon and Watkins Glen.
"Everybody knows how much I have focused on it (Infineon) and how badly I want to win on a road course, especially here," Johnson said in a media interview on Friday. "It's time. We're here. I'm excited. I've run two DP (Daytona Prototype) races this year to get more experience."
Infineon, then known as Sears Point, was the first place Johnson ever drove on pavement, at age 15 in a Formula Ford. Johnson grew up in El Cajon, Calif., 500 miles to the south, but Infineon qualifies as his home road course.
It was a fitting place for that first road racing victory, which he classified as important for him and the No. 48 Hendrick team.
"I'd say the bottom line to it is I love road course racing," Johnson explained. "I grew up racing off-road trucks. They were on road courses with jumps. I made a name for myself in that style of racing. To come to the Cup series and not have success early irritated me. [Crew chief] Chad [Knaus], in general, if there's a track on the schedule, doesn't matter what design it is, if that's our weak spot, he's going to make it better.
"That's why today is so special to us, why it has meant so much. I just truly enjoy road course racing, doesn't matter if it's our stock cars, the Grand Am Series I run in. I'd love to run in an IndyCar someday, F1 (Formula One)."
Knaus says the Hendrick team spends an extraordinary amount of time testing for road courses and it made some of the difference at Infineon. Johnson made the rest.
"We knew we were behind," Knaus said. "We had to get our product better. We felt like our drivers need to get better. We put a lot of effort into it. Jimmie personally has put a lot of effort into upping his road course racing capabilities and he's done a great job. Working with the Gainsco guys has helped him tremendously, with the 24 hours drive and going into Watkins Glen, learning some stuff up there."
Johnson's win boosted him to second in the points race, within one of Denny Hamlin, and just as important,gainedJohnson 10 points in the Chase.
"This win is important and good for us as a team, but it's not what it's going to take to win the Chase," Johnson said. "Totally different racetracks. You can't deny the fact the Gibbs cars (driven by Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano) are quick on short tracks, big tracks. They have their package refined and working really well right now.
"We've been competitive. We're a Top 5 car. We're not where we want to be yet. The good thing is that we have time. We have a lot of time to get our stuff right."
There aren't any Chase road races, but Johnson delivered a message at Infineon to every driver trying to deny him a fifth straight title: He has the will, the talent and the team to take on all challengers.