CONCORD, N.C. — For as long as Jimmie Johnson can remember, the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend has been every bit as hallowed as Super Bowl Sunday for football fans, the Kentucky Derby for horse racing fans or Sunday at the Masters Tournament for golf fans.
His day used to start before daylight with the Grand Prix of Monaco. It then evolved into what’s still considered the greatest spectacle in racing, the Indianapolis 500. And it finished at night with the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
As one of the drivers in Sunday’s 600-mile stock car marathon, Johnson has learned to pace himself on the biggest motorsports day of the year. He will watch highlights of the most-popular Formula One race early Sunday and in between team and corporate appearances he will catch portions of the IndyCar race.
At 6 p.m. Sunday, he will climb inside his No. 48 Chevrolet in preparation of a four-hour race at Charlotte.
“From a race fan’s perspective, Sunday is the greatest day all over,” Johnson said.
Memorial Day weekend has become a sacred holiday for those who love speed. Teams have been at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for nearly a month. They’ve been at Charlotte for nearly two weeks. They will be continuing an 84-year tradition at the most-famous layout of all Grand Prix circuits.
Juan Pablo Montoya is the only driver at Charlotte who knows what it’s like to drive in each of the three marquee events. Moreover, he and legendary driver Graham Hill are the only two to win at Monaco and Indianapolis in their careers. He can become the only driver to win all three main events this Sunday.
Three drivers in the field for Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600 know what it’s like to race at Indianapolis and Charlotte. One, Tony Stewart, did both races in the same day in 1999 and in 2001.
Robby Gordon and John Andretti also have done the “Indianapolis-Charlotte double.” Gordon now is driving in his own stadium truck series, while Andretti currently is looking for a ride.
Johnson and Montoya all will have two practice sessions today to get their cars ready for Sunday night’s race. After that, all three plan to get rest for the 600-mile race – all while keeping an eye on the rest of the racing world.
Given the choice, Johnson is glad he’s now part of the greatest day in racing instead of a spectator. But it will never change the memories of his day-long vigil in front of the TV set.
“To be a part of it, to say thank you, means a lot to Lowe’s, myself and our race team,” he said. “I don’t miss not racing, but sitting on the couch watching all that, I do have fond memories of watching a full day of racing.”