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May 19, 2013

Johnson wins again and shrugs off the haters

CONCORD, N.C. — It’s only fitting that Jimmie Johnson’s latest romp through the record books was shrouded in postrace controversy.

What’s a Johnson win, after all, without a good conspiracy theory?

The latest instance of black helicopters hovering over the Hendrick Motorsports team came in the closing laps of Saturday night’s Sprint All-Star Race after Johnson headed down pit road in the fourth position for the final stop. A speedy quick four-tire change sent him back onto the track in second and put him in position for his record fourth All-Star race victory.

But an error by the television production crew led to an incorrect graphic during the live telecast that claimed Johnson should have lined up much lower in the field going on to pit road.

So as the beer and champagne swirled in Victory Lane, angry fans pounced on the inconsistency and argued Johnson should never have been in position for the win.

Johnson simply offered a bemused shrug.

“I don’t have the slightest clue. People just want to hate,” he said. “That’s fine. I’m just lucky. NASCAR rigs the races and whatever they want to believe. I’m going home with a cool trophy and a big check, and we all really know what happened. So whatever.”

Whatever is what the rest of the field was saying after yet another Johnson win at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The five-time NASCAR champion became the first four-time winner of NASCAR’s annual All-Star race, breaking a tie with the late Dale Earnhardt and teammate Jeff Gordon.

It was fitting that he did it at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the track Johnson, the five-time NASCAR champion, has dominated since his 2002 rookie season. Johnson has won six points races at Charlotte, led more than 1,600 laps and the win in the $1 million Sprint All-Star Race was his second straight and fourth in 12 years. He also won in 2003 and 2006.

Now he’ll head back to the track next week for the Coca-Cola 600, a race he won three straight years from 2003-05 when the No. 48 was unbeatable at Charlotte. The rest of the field caught up to him following a repave of the track, and Johnson’s last win in a points race was 2009.

“We’ve had decent finishes and been competitive and led laps, but the track is just so different now than it was then, and we had it scienced out,” crew chief Chad Knaus said. “We knew literally what time in the afternoon, what the adjustment needed to be made to the car, and it was like clockwork, didn’t matter the year, just every single time. It’s not that way anymore.”

But Johnson and Knaus have been chipping away, working hard to regain their Charlotte dominance.

The speedway is important to Hendrick Motorsports, which is headquartered just minutes away from the track, and to primary sponsor Lowe’s, which is headquartered in nearby Mooresville.

“We certainly want to have that magic because winning here in Hendrick’s backyard and Lowe’s corporate offices just up the road, there’s a lot of reasons we want to be good here,” Johnson said. “But more importantly, it’s like we know that we’ve had it so we feel like we can find it again, and we’re knocking on the door.”

With these two weeks of racing at Charlotte circled on the calendar, Knaus, meticulous in his preparation, made three changes to his pit crew in the week leading into the race. It’s not that anything was wrong with the No. 48 team — Johnson has a 44-point lead in the Sprint Cup standings over second-place Carl Edwards — but Knaus thought the team could be stronger.

It paid off on the final pit stop — a four-tire change in 11 seconds — and it made the difference in his All-Star victory.

“I really didn’t think that we would be able to come down pit road and have a stop that fast, and man, those guys just absolutely nailed it,” Knaus said. “My hat’s off to them. They’ve been working really, really hard trying to improve, and we’ve had to switch some things around during the course of the last month or so, and the guys really rose to the occasion.

“I’m very, very proud of the effort from everybody at Hendrick Motorsports and everybody with the 48 team and what they’ve been able to accomplish over the course of the last few weeks to improve our pit stops.”

That could mean trouble for the competition, especially as Johnson heads into next Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600.

But that’s a week away, and Johnson wanted to savor Saturday night’s record-making win. It gave him another spot in the history books and another opportunity to reflect on where he stands in NASCAR lore.

Of course, Johnson deferred.

“I don’t think it’s a question I have to answer. I still have a lot of years left in my career,” he said. “That’s something the public and masses will have to come up with. I don’t think it’s right for me to sit here and say I’m this guy or the guy. I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished, and I still feel like there is a lot more I can do in this sport.

“I’m working hard to do that, and when I’m old and sitting in a rocking chair hopefully people will think highly of what I’ve done and give me a tip of the hat.”

Even the haters.

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