It was an exhibition race that didn’t count in the Monster Energy Cup series, but for Jimmie Johnson the Advance Auto Parts Clash was as important as any contest he has ever won. The 43-year-old NASCAR veteran, who went winless last year for the first time in his career, picked up the victory on Sunday.
The race only featured 20 cars and was shortened due to rain. The contest was scheduled for 75 laps, but was stopped at 59 laps after the third red flag due to the weather. Johnson said he will gladly take the win.
“We still need a points race win to say we’re back in victory lane,” Johnson said. “But it was a great first step today.”
Race Catalyst for Comeback
The other incident that gave Johnson the victory was a huge crash that he triggered that affected almost every car in the race. Paul Menard was leading the race when Johnson made contact with Menard’s car sending it into the wall.
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Menard wasn’t happy that he got bumped out of the race.
“I’m not really sure, I have to see a replay. Jimmie pulled out I moved down a little bit and the next thing I know is I’m getting turned into the left rear,” Menard said. “Jimmie does that a lot at these tracks, so that’s unfortunate.”
Johnson acknowledged he caused the contact, and said after the race he felt bad for the cars that crashed, but also said he was justified.
“Knowing the rain was coming you could see it coming and I knew that was my lap to make the move I had a great run down the back,” Johnson said. “I got below him before he could block it.”
Comeback Starts Early
This season is one of change, and hopefully redemption for Johnson. After going winless last year, he heard the calls that he was past his prime and should retire.
Having won at least one race since his debut in 2002, it was an unfamiliar feeling to be shut out in 2018.
“I get to say when I’m done,” Johnson said. “It did weigh on me and I can’t wait to win and win often. I think that would be something really nice to say back to all those people that suggested that I was washed up and done.”
But the voices started to creep in his head, and there was a period when he wondered if he could still win. Even his daughter said she was praying for her dad to enter victory lane.
“It was putting some pressure on me,” Johnson said.
Big Change with Team
One issue that was resolved during the offseason was the contentious relationship between Johnson and his crew chief, Chip Knaus. The two had bickered in recent years and at one point had to be separated during a verbal altercation.
Hendrick Motorsports president Rick Hendrick thought that a change was necessary, and moved Knaus to driver William Byron. Xfinity Series crew chief Kevin Mendeering was promoted to Johnson’s team.
”It’s no different than an NFL team when you’ve got a really good coach and a really good quarterback and a really good team, but for some reason it is tired and you need a spark,” Hendrick said. ”You just can’t keep going back again and again and again trying to hold it together. Chad needed a new challenge and so did Jimmie. The combination, they both had tremendous desire, but it just needed something fresh.”