By Seth Eggert, Staff Writer
CONCORD, N.C. – As simulation programs and electronic data become more prominent in NASCAR, Seven-Time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion Jimmie Johnson believes that the driver is still key. The Hendrick Motorsports veteran has driven in several generations of NASCAR stock cars, and throughout much of the technology revolution.
Johnson made his first Premier Series starts in 2001, long before fuel injection, let alone laptops, were the standard in the NASCAR garage. Teams also had little to no restrictions on testing until the Gen 5 car became the standard in 2007 and 2008. Since then, teams have relied more heavily on simulation programs and other technology, which can make or break a season. Roush Fenway Racing famously had a technical glitch in their simulation program, resulting in their cars to be woefully off the pace.
“Drivers have a lot to say with it in our sport because we only get a handful of opportunities to collect real data,” Johnson explained the complexity of technology in the sport today. “Open test sessions are the only time we can collect that data for the vehicle itself and the track. Wheel Force Transducer tests where the manufacturers go run that collects tire data and then you’ve got to marry those two together. When you think about the tracks we test at or are allowed to test at and I think there are probably five open tests a year, I mean we’ve got 23 tracks on the circuit, every winter and summer the surface changes, the grip level changes and before you know it, you’ve got data that is years and years old that you are trying to trust and believe. And then you build your simulation around it.”
The effects on what direction a team goes based on simulations can be seen in recent results. Johnson has gone winless for nearly a full season for the first time in his Cup career. Other teams, such as Stewart-Haas Racing have prospered. The results on track in part, also come from decisions made on race day, as Johnson alluded to.
“It is a tough environment and the driver is still very much required and the crew chief to have gut decisions made. All other forms of motorsports they are streaming telemetry or can collect telemetry and data every lap of every race and that just makes that world so much easier to make the right decisions. For us, it’s still about the gut decision between the driver and the crew chief.”
Johnson and his No. 48 Lowe’s for Pros Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 team enter the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway 12thin the Championship Standings, 217-points behind Points Leader Kyle Busch. He is just 20-points ahead of the Playoff Cutoff, held by his teammate Chase Elliott. Johnson uncharacteristically has just one top-five and four top-10s after 12 races this season.