Nine-time winner Jimmie Johnson reveals the one Martinsville win that sticks out

Photo by Harold Hinson Photography

By Yvonne Jones, Staff Writer

MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Of the nine grandfather clocks he’s won at Martinsville Speedway, Jimmie Johnson doesn’t have a favorite. But there’s one that quickly comes to mind.

The seven-time champ said each has its own special meaning, with the 2004 one forever etched in the memory of the Hendrick Motorsports driver. That victory came the same day a team plane carrying 10 people crashed on its way to the .526-mile paper-clip shaped track. Team owner Rick Hendrick’s son, Ricky, his brother and team president John, two of Hendrick’s nieces and a chief engine builder were doomed in the accident that October.

Then there was last year’s fall win, which locked Johnson into the championship round at Homestead en route to his record-tying seventh championship.

“Yeah, I don’t know, I’m trying to relive them,” Johnson said on Friday. “The one with the plane crash sticks out.  Definitely not from a special stand point, but just as far as so vivid in my mind and knowing that I had won on the day that we lost so many.

“Winning in Martinsville really set us up last year to go on and win the Chase and started a fun and very meaningful journey in remembering those on the airplane, especially Ricky Hendrick and led us to that championship.  I guess from a positive, upbeat standpoint, yes, but the vivid one in my mind is still that, that was a lot kind of like today where it was just overcast and rainy and we ended up winning.  I can’t get that one out of my head.”

That grandfather clock – his ninth – that he won last October, isn’t in his possession. He gave it to 90-year-old Bruton Smith, the founder and executive chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc. during the offseason. Johnson said he sensed Smith liked the Martinsville clock and asked if he had every had a clock or had a driver give him one, and he said no.

“I said, well let me be the first, it would be an honor to give you that trophy,” said Johnson as he described the events leading up to the giveaway. “Not long after, once the trophy was built and put together we were able to take it to his house and put it in the foyer at this home and just have a cool moment.

“I’m just very appreciative for what he has done for our sport, all of us know, but I think when we look back at the history of our sport he is mentioned later in the conversation, but he is very much one of the reasons why our sport is where it is today with his vision of motorsports and love of motorsports.”

If he wins the STP 500 on Sunday at Martinsville, the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet driver knows exactly where he’d put it.

“In the man cave,” he said. “I’ve got a great spot for it and would love to have it.”

Johnson has made winning at Martinsville look easy, but it took him a while to figure out the smallest track on the circuit. He finished 35th in his first race there in 2002. Then he reeled off 17 straight top 10s, six of them wins.

“I used to drive up here depressed and not excited to compete here,” he said. “For me it took being lapped by Tony Stewart to figure it out and then I followed him and got myself back on the lead lap and had a decent finish.  I came here and tested with the No. 24 and had Jeff (Gordon) working diligently with me to figure it out and it didn’t click, looking at the data he would hop in my car and go faster and it was just frustrating and then it finally clicked.”

The El Cajon, California native enters the weekend with just one top 10 in five races this season, and the questions about the slow start keep coming. And while Johnson believes the concern is justified, some reactions, he said, are a little over the top in one extreme or another.

“No, I don’t mind the questions,” Johnson said. “I mean they are rightfully asked.  I think the overreaction on either side is very amusing.  If we are not winning how big of a deal some make of it and when we win how big of a deal some make of it.  I mean, I think our history shows that we can rebound quickly and we have unfortunately had slow summer’s through our existence.  There are a few dynamics there that are pretty darn predictable even though we try to change them, especially that summer slump.

“I guess I don’t mind the questions and every driver has a question.  If you haven’t won why aren’t you winning and if you’ve won can you do it again?  Everybody has a question.  I am so fortunate in my career has shifted in a way to where there are high expectations that come with it.  I will gladly take that than a lot of shoes that other drivers are sitting in. I don’t mind that, I just find it amusing the overreaction good and bad.”

With his mastery of Martinsville, Johnson will try to win two straight at Martinsville since 2012 and ’13.

“I think my background, once I figured out how to drive this place has lent me all the success and has really been the backbone to it all,” said Johnson, who starts 17th on Sunday. “So, looking forward to a great race.  Last fall went very well for us here and looking forward to a good race this weekend.”

 

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