Jimmie Johnson’s recent record in the Daytona 500 doesn’t exactly send his competition into spasms of envy.
Despite five championships in the past seven seasons, Johnson has struggled in his sport’s most important race. He won the race in 2006, his first championship season, but the results since have been dismal – 39, 27, 31, 35, 27 and, last year, only one lap completed and a 42nd-place finish.
“The 500 has been tough,” Johnson said Wednesday. “I have won Duels, I’ve won the Shootout and we have been here in July and have been very competitive and have finished in the top three. But, the 500 – but my memory says a lot of DNFs.
“Last year’s was about as bad as it gets. Leaving the first lap crashing – that wasn’t a good one. We will hopefully make 2.7 miles (more than one lap) this year before anything happens.”
The 2006 win remains a landmark moment for Johnson.
“For me, I wanted to be in elite company,” he said. “My dreams were to try to be the best in this sport. The way you do that is by winning big events and championships. That was prior to a championship.
“The first realistic goal on my list was a 500 win or a Brickyard win. I think we were able to get both that year. It was a big year in a lot of ways. We all know the history of the sport, the history of this track and dream and wish and hope that you can come in here and win. The way the race turned out, I drove a very smart race, stuck to a certain mindset. Was able to get some help on the last lap to maintain the lead and defend my position to the finish line.”
Then came the tough part.
“I was so excited and had a big night with my crew guys,” he said. “Then, I think, at 7 a.m. things (the day-after press conferences and such) kicked off over here at the speedway. As much as I love that day, that was one of the most painful days in Jimmie Johnson’s history.
“I may have celebrated a bit too much the night before. Then, dealing with that, being asked the same question over and over and trying to look awake, alert and happy. Man, I was having a lot of pain, but it was worth it.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 31 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.