CONCORD, N.C. – The neon yellow number made the difference.
Make no mistake, Jimmie Johnson was going to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race this year.
It was just a matter of time.
Johnson’s never gone more than 21 Sprint Cup races without a victory, he’s won six championships and he’s got the best crew in the sport – Chad Knaus and Hendrick Motorsports – backing him.
So why were so many people surprised when Johnson was so dominant on Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway? This is The House That Bruton Built, The House That Humpy Lit and The House That Jimmie Dominates.
He’s won seven points races at Charlotte, more than any other driver. He’s won four Sprint All-Star Races, more than any other driver. Most of his success can be tied to something subtle.
Subtle things can play a big role. Like Michael Jordan switching back to No. 23 from No. 45, Johnson’s Lowe’s Chevrolet SS had a familiar friend on the door in both Charlotte race weeks.
Johnson’s neon yellow No. 48 is synonymous with success.
He won his first five titles with the neon numeral. Switching back to it, even just for a special paint scheme honoring America’s heroes, had to feel right. Johnson has never left the Coca-Cola 600 with zero wins in a season. Ever. Switching to the neon yellow No. 48 had to give him a boost, if only subconsciously.
Jimmie Johnson with a boost is Jimmie Johnson in Victory Lane.
He wasn’t always the one who made fans groan when he won, though.
When Johnson made his first Sprint Cup start in October 2001, it was at Charlotte. Embarrassing the field at Charlotte is nothing new to Johnson – he did it again Sunday – but things used to be different.
Johnson embarrassed himself in his first go-round at CMS.
He’d already had a bad weekend, losing his close friend Blaise Alexander in an ARCA crash and struggling to come to terms with both the loss and a new challenge.
Race day wasn’t much better.
“We’d made the show and the other Lowe’s car (Mike Skinner) didn’t, so that was a huge feather in our cap,” Johnson recalled. “I remember spinning (during the race), and as I’m sliding into the wall, I see Jeff (Gordon) coming for my door, ready to run into the side of me. He’s racing for the championship.
“I’m thinking, ‘Please don’t let him hit me. I’ll have my first and last race all at once.’”
Gordon didn’t hit Johnson, but Johnson’s day was done. He wound up 39th and didn’t finish better than 25th until 2002.
What color was the number on Johnson’s car during his debut? Red. It was changed to neon yellow the next year. The rest, as they say, is history.
Maybe it’s time Johnson brings it back for good.
Then again, maybe not. It was neat seeing others win for a change, wasn’t it?
Don’t get used to it.
“What are you guys gonna write about now?” Johnson asked the media after he won at Charlotte. We’ll find something, Jimmie. I already have.
Neon or not, Jimmie’s back.
It doesn’t look good for the competition.