Jimmie Johnson picked an appropriate spot to notch another chart-climbing NASCAR milestone win.
Johnson grew up in El Cajon, Calif., about a two-hour drive south of Auto Club Speedway (depending on the always treacherous southern California traffic). So winning Sunday’s Auto Club 400, the 77th win of his career and one that moved him into seventh place on NASCAR’s all-time list, had special meaning for him.
“It’s special, very special,” said Johnson, who moved past Dale Earnhardt on the wins list. “It’s great to be close to home. The West coast has such a different vibe. I’ve been in the grind of the East coast for so many years. There’s just nothing like coming back to SoCal to chill out.”
Johnson tied Earnhardt for seventh on the career list when he won at Atlanta in the season’s second race. Now he’s alone in seventh, with Cale Yarborough’s 83 next up. Richard Petty leads the way with an unreachable 200.
“There are a couple ‘ifs’ in there that are pretty big,” Johnson said about continuing his climb up the list. “If I can keep winning like this, (who knows) how long I can do it.
“I feel like physically and mentally I’m the best that I’ve ever been in my career. I’m in a great space and really enjoy going to the race shop, going to the racetrack, working with my team.
“There’s no guarantees about when you’re going to win and have success. I’ve been very, very fortunate to win 77 of these things. It’s easy to look at trends and say we win ‘X’ a year, but at some point that stops, that stops for everybody. I don’t know when that point is for me. I certainly hope it’s not soon.”
It’s something that crew chief Chad Knaus, who has been with Johnson for all 77 victories and six championships, doesn’t really want to think about.
“Let’s worry about the next one, how is that?” said Knaus. “If you start shooting goals like that, you can’t do it. The thing you have to do, from my standpoint, is we have to worry about going to (the next race at) Martinsville and trying to win that race first. I don’t put the cart before the horse, so we focus forward, and that’s what we’re worried about.”
But Johnson does think about it, and how he is going about it.
“It’s know it’s important for me to handle this with class, with respect, with honor for what I’ve done,” said Johnson. “The fact that I tied Dale with the win in Atlanta, and where we are now, I know there’s some more legends just ahead of me in the sport. I look forward to getting a chance to get up there and honor them as well and join them.”