NASCAR driver and biking enthusiast Jimmie Johnson rides with Detroit's Slow Roll through the streets of downtown Detroit on July 13, 2017. Daniel Mears / Detroit News
Detroit — Jimmie Johnson, one of three seven-time NASCAR champions in history, took a nice little five-mile bike ride mid-afternoon Thursday around Corktown, along the Detroit River and downtown
Johnson said it is difficult to predict the championship battle this season, because of the new, complex scoring rules.
He also said wishes the racing groove at Michigan International Speedway would finally widen out a bit after the repaving in 2011. But he is looking forward to the Pure Michigan 400 on Aug. 13.
And, hey, by the way, the Californian said, pretty cool looking city. Especially when you get out and see a neighborhood, a pretty and accessible riverfront and a big collection of pre-World War I and 1920s skyscraper architecture from a bike instead of a car.
“It’s great,” said Johnson, who is tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with seven NASCAR titles.
“To be able to ride a bike through downtown Detroit, see the GM building (Renaissance Center), to be over on the river with so many people smiling and riding bikes, what a fun way to spend an afternoon!”
A brief jaunt for the champ, though.
Asked if it was true on the Saturday (June 17) before the Firekeepers Casino 400 at MIS, he rode the bike from Brooklyn to Ann Arbor, Johnson smiled.
“Well, I had to get back, too,” he said. “So don’t forget, I had to ride back from Ann Arbor to Brooklyn — and in a head wind, which was brutal!”
The driving distance is 37 miles, one way.
But Johnson said his route included a favorite ice cream stand, in Brooklyn.
Johnson is on a bit of a cycling kick, and he said he has “about half of the garage” doing it with him.
But endurance cycling also underlines the fact that long since Formula One racing required such precision that its drivers all have been about the same weight for decades, NASCAR racing began requiring that sort of exactitude, too.
But riding does other things for one of the greatest NASCAR drivers.
“Obviously, there’s a physical side to it that’s been good,” Johnson said. “The mental piece is something I didn’t foresee, and it’s honestly what keeps me going more than anything.
“It’s just great to have that escape. I do more quality thinking about job and life on the road pedaling a bike than, really, I do anywhere.
“I like to pedal plenty, for sure.”
Johnson currently lies ninth in the standings, 190 points behind series leader, Martin Truex Jr. But he and Truex both lead with three wins.
The competition for the playoffs is governed by the new rules.
“I have no idea, if it’s going to be an eighth,” the defending champion, 41, said. “And it’s largely because of the format.
“Last year, I didn’t think seven was an option until I saw the white flag and I was in the lead.
“I thought, no way! Pretty late in the game.”
In his previous six championships, the competition and rules provided a far more discernible picture.
“You kind of knew it was down to one guy, one other competitor,” Johnson said.
Things are even a little more complex this year, a playoff format that will reset the scoreboard to 2,000 points for the opening round, with four drivers eliminated in each playoff race, setting up a “final four” at the Homestead-Miami Speedway for the championship.
“To have it unfold as it does now, with elimination rounds and four drivers, winner-take-all,” Johnson said, “you just have no earthly idea.”
As for concerns races at MIS are less competitive since the track was repaved six years ago, Johnson admitted to some frustration after Firekeepers Casino 400 in June.
“I guess I miss the old track, and I know we have to repave these things at a certain time. But we just need to get the groove pushed out and to be wider,” he said.
“It is an amazing track to compete at. It’s just that when you put 39 other cars out on the track, you get stuck, in some respects.”
Johnson lost position early in the June race, and on the old surface and at tracks like MIS, generally, it would not have been fatal to his chances, given the significant pace in his car. But on the new surface, it all added up to frustration, and less than the highly competitive racing that MIS, one of the fastest tracks in NASCAR, should produce.
“It’s fast track. There are many elements I truly enjoy.
“I think from a competitor’s standpoint, if you don’t have the day go your own way and you have some traffic issues or lose track position, it’s just impossible to race your way back to the front because the groove is narrow.
“Hopefully we can push that out. There’s a lot of ideas about how to do it. We should try it, and let’s see if we can get some good side-by-side racing.”
MIS August races
What: NASCAR Cup Series Pure Michigan 400
When: 3 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 13
Where: Michigan International Speedway, Brooklyn
Defending champion: Kyle Larson
Support race: NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Saturday, Aug. 12, 1 p.m. (FS1)