Jeff Burton ranks as the first driver to master Texas Motor Speedway.
He won the inaugural race in 1997, and became the first multi-winner in the track’s history by taking the checkered flag in the spring of 2007. That’s why he’s going into the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame on Thursday night.
But even Burton knows his résumé doesn’t stack up to what Jimmie Johnson has done at Texas. Johnson is in another league, and it will be borderline surprising if he doesn’t win next Saturday night’s Duck Commander 500.
Johnson became the first to win three consecutive Cup races at TMS when he won November’s AAA Texas 500, and he has won five of the past seven Sprint Cup races at the track.
Thanks in large part to Johnson, a Chevrolet driver has won six of the past seven races at TMS, to take a 13-12 lead on Ford for the most wins by a manufacturer at the track.
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“When a guy like Jimmie can roll off wins and do what he’s done there, it’s pretty amazing,” said Burton, an analyst for NBC Sports’ NASCAR coverage.
Texas is one of the tracks with an older surface on it and it just fits for me.
Jimmie Johnson on winning the past three Sprint Cup races at the track
“It’s hard to do that at Texas. The track is always changing and that’s why you’ve seen so many different winners come through there. So Jimmie and [his crew chief Chad Knaus] just do a heck of a job adapting to whatever the situation is.”
Johnson, a 40-year-old driver with six Sprint Cup championships to his name, takes pride in that. He feels the ability to adapt and adjust is something that has separated him and the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet team.
Texas, in particular, requires that from its winners. It can be abrasive and bumpy at times, forcing drivers to clearly and concisely communicate with their crews on what has to happen during a race.
Or, put another way, it’s the reason you won’t find any fluke winners when scrolling through the list of drivers who have visited Victory Lane.
“Texas is one of the tracks with an older surface on it and it just fits for me. That’s really it,” Johnson said. “The longer the race, the more adjustments that need to be made … I’ve always thought a big thing has been our ability to communicate and talk through what I’m feeling and where we think things are going to go and making the right adjustments.
“Those are really the races where I shine and the 48 shines.”
The proof is in the numbers.
Johnson holds records in wins (6) and laps led (1,023), and has posted a top-five finish in more than half the races he’s run at Texas (13 in 25 career starts). He also has won the pole once and has more than $7 million in career earnings at TMS.
“It’s no surprise when you see Jimmie in Victory Lane, you know?” TMS president Eddie Gossage said. “Jimmie’s problem, if you can call it that, is that he’s so good that it just looks effortless. And it’s not effortless.
“Him and Chad and the work they put in … they don’t have any weak links in that chain. So when he wins, you sit there and go, ‘You deserved it. You outworked everybody.’ ”
I know it’s high on my list. You want that side-by-side, door-to-door action. Out of all my wins, there’s probably a half dozen that come down to that. I hold them with great pride.
Jimmie Johnson on winning his first race at TMS in 2007
Johnson has won 77 races in his illustrious career, and all of them are memorable in their own right. But his first win at Texas on Nov. 4, 2007, holds a special place for him.
Johnson and Matt Kenseth had a photo finish, engaging in a door-to-door battle in the closing laps of the Dickies 500. There were three lead changes in the final eight laps before Johnson pulled away to take the checkered flag by 0.944 of a second.
“To be able to have a race like that for a win is what you dream of as a kid,” said Johnson, who went on to win his second championship that season.
“I know it’s high on my list. You want that side-by-side, door-to-door action. Out of all my wins, there’s probably a half dozen that come down to that. I hold them with great pride.”
Johnson said battling it out with a respected driver such as Kenseth helped. He knew it would be a competitive, but clean, finish. Plus, Johnson had a comfortable points lead at the time and didn’t want to jeopardize his championship dreams.
“I remember Knaus telling me on the radio, ‘We don’t have to win the race,’ ” Johnson said.
Johnson paused and then smirked: “But my competitive spirit, I’m like, ‘I have the car to do it. I need to go up there and get the trophy.’ ”
He did just that, and it remains one of his most vivid memories on the track. Kenseth, understandably, doesn’t recall that day as fondly.
“I thought it was terrible because I got beat,” Kenseth said. “You never like to be in those late race battles when you get beat. At the end of the day, he was just too fast for me.”
Johnson has been on the other side of it, too, and it’s remarkable to think how much more impressive his Texas résumé could be. Johnson has been the runner-up in four of the five closest finishes in TMS history.
Denny Hamlin beat him by 0.152 of a second in the spring of 2010; Tony Stewart beat him by 0.272 in fall of 2006; Jeff Gordon beat him by 0.378 in spring of 2009; and Carl Edwards beat him by 0.399 in spring of 2008.
But don’t expect anybody to shed tears for Johnson and his might-have-been wins. All of them would gladly trade their TMS records with his.
It’s always fun to go to Texas.
Johnson returns to Texas next weekend as the driver to beat once again. No driver has gotten off to a better start than Johnson, who has already clinched a spot in the Chase by winning twice in the first five races. His win at Auto Club Speedway last month pushed him past Dale Earnhardt Sr. in career wins.
That puts him and his team in a favorable position, where winning doesn’t have to be the top priority.
“A quick start just sets the season in place,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t guarantee you a championship and peaking in September is still key. That’s what we’re focused on now.
“But it’s a long stretch between now and September and we’re not going to get complacent. So we’ll keep plugging away.”
Count on Johnson and his team trying to find a way to put it together once again at Texas. A win would just add to the legacy he has already built at TMS.
The wins have given Johnson a solid fan base in Texas, and he is also leaving a lasting impression in the area through his community efforts. In April 2012, he visited Clara Love Elementary School to crown the inaugural champions of TMS’ “Speeding to Read” program.
This year, Johnson has partnered with TMS and NASA’s Langley Research Center to form Rockets 2 Racecars, an educational program on Newton’s laws of motion that has been introduced in the five Northwest school district middle schools.
Johnson will visit with students before the Duck Commander 500 on Saturday, and he might be looking forward to that more than the race itself.
“I love giving back and this Rockets 2 Racecars is great because it brings kids to the track and is such a natural tie,” Johnson said. “If kids are into rockets and space, they’re probably going to be a fan of automobiles too. It’s just a perfect partnership, and Texas Motor Speedway has been behind it since Day One.
“It’s always fun to go to Texas.”