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Jimmie Johnson and Co. seek one last Atlanta celebration before repave
- Updated: March 3, 2017
By Yvonne Jones, Staff Writer
HAMPTON, Ga. — Jimmie Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates are looking for one last hurrah on the old Atlanta Motor Speedway surface.
Johnson has won the last two races while HMS has claimed the last three overall. The reigning and seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion can earn his sixth — all on the current surface — with a victory in the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 on Sunday.
With the second-oldest asphalt on the entire Cup circuit, AMS is scheduled to be repaved later this month. AMS, last repaved in 1997, will have a brand new asphalt surface placed over the top of the present one. Its quad-oval layout and 24-degree banking in the turns will stay the same.
“I think we all appreciate tracks with so much character and to have the bad news that two of the tracks with the most character are going to be repaved this year, I think shocked and upset a lot of us,” Johnson said on Friday. “We get it. We understand, but it’s just going to take a long time for the track to get back to this condition.
“I don’t think Darlington is really even back to where it once was and the challenges that it poses the teams. It’s got to happen at some point and I’m sure generations before me drivers were bummed when tracks were resurfaced then too. It’s just part of racing.”
HMS began the Atlanta streak with Kasey Kahne’s 2014 win before Johnson took the last two. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who picked up a win there in 2004 while with Dale Earnhardt Inc. – has four top 10s in four of his last five trips. Jeff Gordon had five victories — four on the current pavement — before he retired in 2015.
“Yeah it’s been a great track for me really when I look back over my career and when I think of Hendrick related race cars and success from (Jerry) Nadeau running well here. Jeff (Gordon) has obviously always been amazing here,” Johnson explained. “Kahne, it has been a good track for (Dale Earnhardt) Junior over the years. It is a good track for all of us. “
Johnson and Bobby Labonte are tied at five for the most Cup series victories on this surface.
Johnson’s HMS teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. tweeted on Thursday, asking “should we have some kind of post race service of remembrance and mourning?” And Johnson concurred.
“Yeah, I do. This track is so fun and so interesting and so challenging, I hate that it’s our last run on this asphalt,” said Johnson, who had a 34th-place finish in the Daytona 500. “But, the practice session didn’t disappoint. It still threw plenty of challenges at the teams and certainly ours. We are learning as we go here with this new package, start of a new season. I’m ready to go collect some points and get some wins.”
Johnson was 21st in the first practice on Friday and later qualified 18th for Sunday’s race.
“I can say the last two races we have won here we didn’t really get our stuff situated until late in the going and been able to come out on top,” said Johnson, who started 37th and 19th when he won the last two at AMS. “Just because you might have a slow Friday or a slow start to the race I don’t think you can count anybody out. We have a lot of chances to work on the car and can make stuff happen here, which is really neat.”
Georgia native and Hendrick Motorsports driver, Chase Elliott, who cut his teeth in the Legends program at AMS, said he had this race circled on his calendar for quite some time. He finished eighth in his first Cup race as a rookie in 2016.
“I’m going to enjoy this race weekend, because of the (coming) surface change,” said the 21-year-old driver. “I think we all enjoy the surface that’s there and just the options it gives you as a driver to move around.”
And as for Earnhardt, NASCAR’s most popular driver, who also has an affinity for the rough and aged track, it will be a bittersweet farewell to the old pavement.
“I expect it to drive good,” said Earnhardt, who starts 12th on Sunday. “I love the race track. I know they’re going to repave it after this year, so, we’ll try to enjoy the last race on that old asphalt, because it’s hard to beat the surfaces that get aged like that.”