MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Jimmie Johnson has won three races already this season, and last week rallied with 10 laps to go to win at a place where his results had been mediocre.
The victory at Bristol, Tenn., prompted a frustrated Kurt Busch, who Johnson passed, to say afterward that he would have preferred that anyone but the four-time Cup champion take the victory.
In Johnson’s mind, that means he has Busch – and others – right where he wants them.
“Man, I’ve always wanted to be that guy that frustrated the field, frustrated the garage,” he said Friday at Martinsville, where qualifying for Sunday’s race was rained out.
“I was fortunate enough to watch (Dale) Earnhardt do that during his run and (Jeff) Gordon during his. And you ask any driver in the garage area. They want to be in my shoes. They want to be the guy that is referenced when someone loses and they say ‘anyone but.’ ”
Getting into the competition’s head, intentionally or otherwise, isn’t new in NASCAR.
The key to making it work is knowing who you are dealing with, said two-time champion Tony Stewart – and who is vulnerable to it and who is not.
“There is a group of guys that are easy to do that to and there is a group of guys that it is impossible to,” he said. “No matter what you try to do, you can’t get in their heads.”
To some degree, what Johnson has done has to be in everyone’s head, Jeff Burton said. Before Johnson started winning championships, only Cale Yarborough had won three in a row.
“For me, if you’re not paying attention to what they’re doing and understand that they’re the guys you need to beat if you want to win a championship, then you’re not a fast learner,” he said. “You can be in denial about where they are and what they’re doing if you like, but if you want to understand what you’re up against, then you need to understand it.
“Now, if that’s being in your head or not, I don’t know.”
The last driver to have a run going like Johnson has had in the past four years – he won 29 races, plus three of the first five this year – was his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jeff Gordon, who won four championships between 1995 and 2001.
In his mind, the surest way to keep the competition guessing is to keep winning.
“Those were the easiest weekends I ever had in this sport,” he said of the six-year stretch when he earned 56 of his 82 career victories, including 33 in a three-year period.
“When you have things going your way like that, you just go to the race track and it doesn’t matter where you’re at on the board. You feel like you’ve got a shot at winning the race,” he said. “… And you win the races that you shouldn’t be winning and you’re winning the ones that you should be winning. It’s an awesome feeling.”
When he was on top, and gradually taking the spot from Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace, Gordon was often loudly booed during introductions as though he had done something terrible.
Johnson, though, doesn’t even draw that response.
“It’s because he doesn’t do anything on the race track that makes them mad, other than win,” Stewart said.