Racing has always been a sport where momentum can be stopped at the drop of a hat. The slate is wiped clean after every race; you may finish Sunday in Victory Lane, but the next weekend can provide you with an opportunity to go from hero to zero immediately upon the drop of the green.
Ask Jimmie Johnson about that; he can relate.
At this point, everyone knows about the misfortune the No. 48 team experienced at New Hampshire. Losing a cylinder in the engine before a quarter of the race was complete, Johnson underwent a lengthy pit stop under a lap 81 caution to try and fix whatever was wrong. Coming out in the back of the pack, Johnson left himself vulnerable to the type of chain reaction accidents that often happen at the flat 1-mile oval, and paid the price; as Sterling Marlin ahead of him checked up for another car, the right side of the No. 14 slammed into the No. 48, and just like that, the car was in the outside wall.
“The thing [engine] was still running right, so we thought maybe a plug wire or plug was what was wrong with it,” Johnson explained about his team’s newest misfortune. “We came in and looked at the plug wires, but we couldn’t find anything there. We were just trying to get to the next caution so we could look at it again.”
“Unfortunately, we were the next caution.”
Finishing 39th after repairs, the crash put Johnson in a tough hole to crawl out of early in the Chase for the Championship, falling to ninth in points, 139 behind leader Kevin Harvick with just nine races remaining. That’s not exactly the type of history you want to be a part of. In the two previous years of the Chase, a total of six drivers have left the first race at New Hampshire over 90 points behind the leader. Of those, none of them has come back to win the title, and only one has finished the season in the top five in points. That was Carl Edwards last year, but unlike Johnson, Edwards didn’t have a demoralizing crash at Loudon to go along with two spinouts at Richmond the weekend before. Edwards simply soldiered on to a 19th-place finish in this event last year, still ending the event running on the lead lap to keep his Chase hopes afloat.
Speaking of average, that seems to be a good assessment of the No. 48 group over the past month. Where did it all go wrong? Perhaps it’s not that things went wrong, more that Johnson had a high enough win total to keep us all fooled. Six weeks ago, people were busy cleaning the crown to be put above Johnson’s head after Homestead; with a 107-point lead following his fourth victory of the season at the Brickyard 400, a title seemed the next logical profession for this bunch. After all, Johnson’s victory total for the year included the two biggest races on tour: Daytona and Indianapolis.
Underneath those big wins, though, were some stats that suggested Johnson’s year was that of an overachiever. Currently, he’s just 10th on tour with 368 laps led, despite winning those four times; if you project that out over 36 races, the total rises to just 490, easily the lowest total of any of Johnson’s five full-time Nextel Cup seasons. In fact, Johnson’s led a lap in just 10 of 27 races this year, tied for the lowest total among all Chasers with Kasey Kahne.
Of course, that stat can be even further dissected when you think about the early success Johnson achieved during Chad Knaus’s four-race suspension for violating the rules prior to the Daytona 500. Take away wins at Daytona and Las Vegas along with a second-place finish at Atlanta that was achieved while Knaus was on the sidelines, and Johnson has just five top-five finishes in 23 starts this season with him at the helm. Instead of running up towards the front of the pack, Johnson’s been mostly a sixth to 12th-place car since then, finishes that have kept him up towards the top of the points after the strong boost he had in the beginning of the season.
Certainly, that’s not to say Knaus is the only one to point the finger at, and Johnson’s master of pit road has been on top of his game this season in getting an ill-handling No. 48 car to battle for a top-10 finish as the laps wind down. Still, top-10 finishes won’t cut it now; for Johnson to put together a type of comeback he achieved in 2004, in which he won four of the last six races to fall eight points short of a championship, the car must be capable of leading laps. Right now, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
Of course, despite all this evidence, most are willing to believe, and certainly shall continue to believe that the way Johnson has been scratching together top-10 finishes this season, this team will finally be ready to claim the title that had eluded them for four straight years now. How many times can you come this close, they will say, and not quite get what you’re looking for? Well, let’s just say Johnson should have a good talk with Mark Martin, because once he retires, Johnson may quickly inherit the role of best driver never to win a title, with no end to that streak currently in sight.
“I hope I don’t eat [my words] when I said you can’t win the championship here in New Hampshire but you can lose it today,” said a disappointed Johnson after the race.
“As of right now, it looks like things are out of our control to get back in this thing.”
The way the team has run this season, it’s hard not to agree.