INDIANAPOLIS – Even though defending Brickyard 400 winner Kasey Kahne won’t be behind the wheel this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his former teammate Jimmie Johnson still had plenty of praise to offer him on Saturday.
Johnson met with the media during a weather delay – which eventually turned into a cancellation of all on-track activities for the day – and spoke candidly about Kahne and his opinion of their time together as teammates as Kahne prepares to retire at the end of the season.
The duo was at Hendrick Motorsports together for six seasons, from 2012 to 2017, during which time they shared numerous on-track battles and plenty of time pushing each other within the team as well.
Johnson reflected on those good times on Saturday, particularly noting that Kahne developed into a friend and rival that expanded his own limits on the race track.
“I’ve been able to have some great battles with him over the years. When he was at (Ray) Evernham, I know he made me a better driver,” said Johnson. “My strong tracks were also his strong tracks. Charlotte is the first one that comes to mind. We had some awesome duels (there).
“Along my journey of becoming a multi-time champion, he’s one of the guys along the way that’s helped me dig deeper and find more within myself,” Johnson continued. “He’s been a great friend and it’s sad to hear that he won’t be here this weekend. I actually spoke to him yesterday. On top of the retirement piece, to have his dehydration situation going on right now; I certainly just want the best for him.”
Particularly notable, and also most recently, was the three-wide battle for the win that Kahne and Johnson were a part of during last year’s Brickyard 400.
Johnson dove to the inside entering turn three on a late restart, where Kahne was the leader, but an oil leak with the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet sent Johnson’s car spinning into the outside wall and ended his hopes at a record-tying fifth Cup Series win at IMS. Kahne went on to score the victory.
“I was able to get in position off of turn two,” recalled Johnson. “Kasey and Brad (Keselowski) were running side-by-side … and doing that through any of these turns kind of slows you down. They were racing real hard and it gave me a chance to pick-up some momentum, pull to the inside down the long back straightaway into turn three.
“Then I remember looking up in the mirror and thinking, who is smoking? It must be me. I couldn’t really smell it in the car or see it in the car; it took me seeing it in the mirror to know something was going on. … I was wondering if it was going to affect my corner, and as soon as I let off the gas into turn three, I was sideways, but I remember hoping that I didn’t take out Kasey in the process.
“I knew I was crashing. I knew there was no saving it. I just didn’t want to take him out with me, and thankfully he got through and went on to win the race.”
Johnson also sympathized with the heat exhaustion issues that are currently keeping Kahne out of the seat.
“Everybody reacts differently to heat. For me, fortunately, the cramping starts first,” Johnson explained. “The one moment I had in Richmond, actually, I was passing out I guess from the pain of the cramping or something; my body just shut down. It’s something I’ve worked very hard on and I’ve found that I’ve got to keep evolving as I get older.
“What I eat just continues to change. I assume it’s something similar that he’s going through, but I really applaud him for standing back and saying ‘look, I need to make sure I know what’s going on before I go any further.’ I’m bummed not to see him here, but at the same time I think he made the right decision in sitting down this weekend.”
As Kahne departs the sport in a few months’ time, Johnson admitted he’ll miss the camaraderie that he and Kahne shared as teammates, but that the Enumclaw, Wash., native certainly left an indelible impact on him as well.
“The friendship side, that piece is probably what I will hold onto the most,” Johnson said. “But along the way, he did make dig deeper than I’ve dug before, and that made me stronger as a result.”