By David Morgan, Associate Editor
TALLADEGA, Ala. – Two weeks ago, seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson was making his inaugural start in the Boston Marathon.
Back at the race track for the first time since completing that grueling event, the race that Johnson called “awful and amazing at the same time” could be just what the doctor ordered when it comes to his on-track performance.
“I had a goal in mind to run a certain pace and tried to hang onto it,” Johnson said of the experience in Boston. “I didn’t really slow down and enjoy the experience as much as I maybe should have. I was kind of in race mode and ran it hard. I had a few arguments with myself along the way that look, you just need to enjoy this and take it all in.
“There was definitely a mental battle going on through the course of the 26 miles, but just extremely painful and the most amazing experience I think I’ve had. To have two million people cheering, to have competitors offering you advice as you’re running next to them and high-fiving you – it was just an environment I’ve never been in before.
“My first reality check was at mile seven. It was the first flat stretch of road and I couldn’t run the pace that I had hoped to. The heart rate that I desired to run the entire distance and I had to pull it back and then at halfway I was a minute, 20 seconds off the split time I needed and I wasn’t going to get any faster on the second half with the hills.
“I honestly just got into a pretty aggressive argument with myself and just told myself to stop looking at my watch, just quit it and run comfortably and see what the time is when you get home, get to the end. The next time I looked at my watch was on the final road and I saw it was like a 3:08 and something as I was approaching the finish line. I was like, ‘damn, I ran pretty good.’ I didn’t look that second half of the race, I just had to go to a different place mentally to get through it.”
Johnson, who is known as one of the most physically fit drivers in the Cup Series garage, noted Friday at Talladega Superspeedway that while events like the marathon are taxing on his 43-year old body, they only help to make him better behind the wheel of his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
“I just think through my career, I’ve had to get uncomfortable in my own head to be fast and I’ve always had mentors or coaches working with me along the way,” Johnson said. “When I look back to my motocross days, my early days in off-road truck, stock cars – all of that – the space and the way I have to go to war with myself in the race car is the same way I’ve got to go to war with myself in a physical event.
“For me, it is a way for me to get stronger and be able to perform better in those moments. Someone will say I’m losing my focus, but honestly it’s sharpening my focus and making me stronger for those moments in the car.”
After having to go to war with himself in his effort to finish the marathon, which he completed in three hours, nine minutes, and seven seconds, Johnson will now go to war with the field at Talladega in his efforts to break a winless streak that dates back to 2017.
To do so, he will have to not only conquer the other 39 drivers on track, but the new aerodynamic package that was rolled out this weekend. Johnson timed in 10th and 17th in the two practice sessions on Friday and noted the package being raced at the 2.66-mile track is unlike anything he has raced here previously.
“The closing rate, based on my memory, is the highest I’ve experienced,” Johnson said. “The roof rail they had back in like (2001) was before my time, but I’ve heard the closing rate is similar to that or maybe what a Truck would be like. I haven’t experienced either of those, but in my Cup career, I haven’t felt a closing rate and also the engine pulling. You know, with this tapered spacer instead of a restrictor plate, we have a 100 more horsepower and the engines are running hard, so there’s definitely a different experience there in closing rate.”
Despite the unknowns Sunday’s race presents, Johnson has had prior success at Talladega that he can lean on with two wins, seven top-five finishes, and 13 top-10 finishes in 34 starts. In each of the last two seasons, Johnson has banked a top-10 finish at the track.