DOVER — Jimmie Johnson still remembers how shocked he was the first time he saw the Monster Mile up close.
It was around 1998 and the young driver was watching some Indy cars test at Dover International Speedway.
“I was like ’Whoa,’” said Johnson. “IRL cars were here testing and to watch those things go by just makes your eyes spin anyway.
“To see the real elevation change was surprising to me. I didn’t pick that up watching races on TV. And then driving my first lap or two around here, I was like, ‘This is incredible.’ I had no idea the topgraphy of the track was like that.”
Driving on the ASA circuit at the time, Johnson was smitten with Dover right from that moment.
“I fell in love with this track,” he said. “When we came to Dover (in ‘98), myself and maybe one or two other young guys in the field were just in heaven and loving the experience. The rest of the field was shaking and worried.”
The 17 years since his first introduction to the Monster Mile have only increased Johnson’s affection for the track.
Now a NASCAR Sprint Cup star, Johnson was out on the concrete surface on Wednesday with a dozen other drivers for a test session.
Johnson and the rest of the NASCAR world will return to Dover in a few weeks for the Sprint Cup Fedex 400 Benefitting Autism Speaks on May 31.
As has been the case for several years now, Johnson will be one of the favorites. His nine Sprint Cup victories are not only a Dover record but he’ll have a chance to become just the fifth driver to win 10 Cup races at any one track.
That being said, Johnson said there’s always things he can work on to improve his chances on the Monster Mile. That’s where this week’s testing comes in.
“We always have ideas,” said Johnson. “And it’s so tough to really experiment with things when you’re at the track on a race weekend. Most teams never get too far from the general concept that you’re racing that weekend.
“Everything is so precise today that, in order to wholesale a car and try a new concept, you need a couple hours to go through it. ... We can try a lot more. We might not be able to learn and be able to have the speed on the track today but we’ll go home with some things that did work or didn’t work and let our group at home stew on it.”
Johnson came to Dover this week fresh off a win at Kansas. It was his third victory of the season as he sits third in the Sprint Cup points standings.
That fast start has all but locked Johnson into end-of-the-season playoff already. Johnson said that cushion allows him a little freedom to take some chances in the right situation.
Kansas just gave him the right opportunity.
“Sitting on 50-lap tires with eight to go, we’re tight on fuel but we think we can make it,” said Johnson. “I’ve won two races, let’s gamble. There’s no need to get fuel, come out third or fourth and worry about a nice top-five. We tried to hit the ‘walk-off’ and we got it.
“It is very situational. Man, if you’re running 20th and make that move, it’s probably pretty stupid,” he added with a laugh. “But, if the right situation develops, it’s worth the gamble for sure.”
Who knows whether opportunity will present itself again when Johnson returns to Dover later this month.
One thing for sure, though, Johnson is looking forward to racing again on the Monster Mile.
“The place has just always been so unique and different for me,” he said. “The intensity required to make a lap around here is just fun. I mean you’ve got to be up on the wheel, jumping off into the turns, fight through all the banking and slipping and sliding, climb up the hills, and do all over again a few seconds later. It’s just a really fun race track.
“I do think maybe it ties back to my off-road roots,” he added. “This is my only chance to get airborne — intentionally — on any of the tracks we race at.”