WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. — For Jimmie Johnson, the extra helicopter rides were easily worth the extra effort.
Adapting well to the limits of a Daytona Prototype in his first foray on a high-speed road course in the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series, Johnson walked away with a satisfied smile Saturday after nearly an hour behind the wheel in the Sahlen's Six Hours of The Glen at Watkins Glen International.
"I did a good job. I feel like I did well," said Johnson, who commuted both Friday and Saturday between Watkins Glen and the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at nearby Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania. "I really learned a lot here today with the braking ability of the car, the grip level that this track has. I think it will help me."
Jon Fogarty drove the first segment of the grueling race in the No. 99 GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Racing Chevrolet Riley and entered the pits with the lead at the midpoint. But after the driver change, Johnson left in second, trailing Memo Rojas in the No. 01 BMW Riley of Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates by 4 seconds. Rojas and Scott Pruett went on to win the race for the third straight year.
Johnson, racing the long course at The Glen for the first time in his career, lost nearly 10 seconds to Rojas because of difficulties negotiating traffic. But after banging doors with the No. 75 of Tracy Krohn, Johnson managed to cut the lead back to 7.9 seconds 24 laps into his run and exited the car in second place during a caution with about 2 hours remaining in the race.
"I think a lot of it just had to do with my confidence, braking zones, passing other cars, lapping cars," the four-time Sprint Cup champion said. "I think when we had a clean track I was on pace, if not quicker, on some laps. But he made quicker work in traffic than I did. I know this race will help me going into the Rolex 24 (next year)."
It was the eighth start for Johnson in a Daytona Prototype but the first away from Daytona International Speedway. He's driven for Stallings at the season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona in each of the past three years, and this year he crashed in practice.
"Every year that we have him at Daytona, he's up to speed in three laps," Stallings said. "This is his first time on a legit road course. He just wants to be good, and he has a powerful instinct not to be a drag on us, ever."
Johnson surely wasn't on this day, posting lap times that were on par with the series regulars when he wasn't mired in traffic. And he did it driving for the first time on the 3.4-mile layout that includes the famed mile-long boot section used by Formula One when it raced here for two decades and the IndyCar Series today. NASCAR races on a 2.45-mile circuit that bypasses the boot.
"Knowing the history of this race track, it's just cool. I feel like now I've completed the track and have seen it as some of the greats have," Johnson said. "I would love to see our race go all the way down into the boot. It would give us more passing opportunities, which we desperately need. But I do see some pretty good areas to tear up cars, so I don't know if we'd have more cautions. I would suspect we would. There's a couple of good areas to throw our cars away and make a mess."
Johnson has not won a Cup road race in 16 tries, but when the series stops at Sonoma in two weeks he figures he'll have an edge he's never had before.
"I grew up racing motorcycles, and my dad would always put me on a bigger bike than my class," Johnson said. "He always told me that if I could ride a bike with more power and see things at a faster speed, when I'm on my normal-type bike it would slow everything down for me. I believe in that.
"I've been very fortunate to get into this car and then go back to a Cup car. I think that how fast this car stops, how fast it goes through the turns, when I go back to a Cup car it slows things down for me and helps me be a little bit more in control."
Johnson, who arrived by helicopter just before the green flag waved, stayed on the team pit box until the end of the race. But Alex Gurney, who replaced him for the final segment, spun off course in the closing laps and the No. 99 finished sixth.