The season started with a mechanical failure at Daytona, followed by wins in three of the next four races. The next three races saw a ninth-, third- and second-place finish.
Most everyone near the sport was bemoaning the fact that it was going to be a rout, that we might as well give Jimmie Johnson the big shiny trophy and spend the rest of the year fishing or playing golf. However, a funny thing happened on the way to the coronation; the wheels all but fell off as the No. 48 team seemed to have difficulties adapting to the CoT’s new spoiler, and the next five races were all but a complete disaster.
The four-time consecutive champion had a five race stretch from Talladega through Charlotte where he was looking more like Jimmy Neutron than Jimmie Johnson. While he did manage a 10th-place finish at Richmond, Talladega, Darlington and Charlotte saw finishes in the 30s, all from crashes which were brought on by un-Johnson like car-control mistakes. Prior to this stretch of races, the times Johnson spun on his own during a race could probably be counted on one hand.
But over those five races, Johnson spun no fewer than three times on his own. Meanwhile, Denny Hamlin was ripping up the circuit and taking over the lead in victories with five while Johnson fell from first to seventh in points. Everyone, including the most ardent Johnson fans, was writing him off as a title contender this season.
Fortunately for Johnson, Chad Knaus and the rest of the No. 48 team, they don’t read too much into the press clippings and bulletin board posts, they just make cars that handle well and go fast. And the end result is winning races. Johnson responded to this challenge by winning the last two weeks, including a victory at Sonoma, his first on a road course, and Loudon after he was roughed up by Kurt Busch. In turn, Johnson roughed Busch up to retake the lead and ultimately the win.
Since Charlotte, Johnson has finished fifth, sixth, first and first. Johnson is now tied with Hamlin for the lead in victories for the year and, at least at this point, will be tied with Hamlin for the lead in the Chase when it starts after Richmond.
What people need to remember about the NASCAR season is that it is very long, and they don’t crown champions during the regular season. It is all about running well in the last 10 races of the season, and the No. 48 team has been the best over the last four years during that stretch. Every year they have a stretch where they struggle, but when the money is on the line they are the best in the sport and there is no sign that will be any different this year.
The only thing to worry about during the run up to the Chase is that the more races a driver can win, the better because bonus points are paid for each win when the drivers get into the Chase. Just in case you are worried about it, Johnson is back to second in the points after New Hampshire, trailing Kevin Harvick by 105 markers.
Just to put a little historical perspective on the past four championships that Johnson has scored, look at the slumps he has endured. In 2006, after winning Indianapolis, Johnson went nine races without a top five and only one top-10 finish. That was four races into the Chase. From that point on, Johnson scored four second-place finishes, a win and a ninth place to secure his first championship.
In 2007, Johnson went from Charlotte through Indianapolis with one top five and two top 10s while finishing 37th or lower three times. He went on to have only two finishes lower than seventh in the Chase, both of which were 14th-place finishes. 2008 saw more of the same when Johnson went from Talladega through Daytona with no top-five finishes, four top 10s and two finishes in the 30s. When the Chase rolled around, he had a mere three finishes lower than sixth; a ninth and two 15ths. Last year Johnson went on a skid after winning Indianapolis again, scoring only one top 10 and two finishes in the 30s over six races. He followed that up by winning four races in the Chase with seven top fives, nine top 10s and one hiccup of 38th at Texas.
It is easy to forget that the regular season is just that, the buildup to the playoffs and a time for teams to work out the kinks. Even though Johnson and Knaus refuse to admit the spoiler had an impact on their car, it obviously threw them a bit of a curve. The last two races were not on intermediate speedways, so the jury is still out to see just how good Johnson will be on the bigger tracks with the spoiler.
However, even though past performance is not a predictor of future success, there is little doubt that Knaus and Johnson will have this thing figured out by the time the Cup Series heads back to Loudon in September, and the races start counting toward the championship. The worst thing anyone can do is to tell the No. 48 team that they’ve lost it and they are not going to go big for the title, because they have proven for years that, when the going gets tough, the No. 48 gets going.