Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito: Stop Deluding Yourself – Jimmie Johnson & No. 48 Team Still Class of the Field

If there’s one thing I hate more than people over looking the obvious and pooh-poohing that which is obviously festering into something that will become rather significant, it’s making a mountain out of a molehill and digging for a story where there isn’t one. Case in point, the fixation over Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48’s alleged “struggles” as of late. Those who continue to foster this notion are either just regurgitating box scores, or trying to explain away the continued failure of Lance McGrew and Dale Earnhardt Jr. as a pairing, or why Mark Martin is a year, four wins and a runner-up title performance away from not making the Chase at all in 2010.

Over the course of the last seven races, Johnson has just one top-10 finish at Pocono in July. These seven races also just preceded his series-leading fourth and fifth wins at Infineon and New Hampshire. During this seven-race skid, Johnson and the No. 48 team – the four-time consecutive defending championship team – have lead 379 laps. Along the way there has been some misfortune – missing pit road while dominating Chicago, followed by a self-induced spin, a cut tire and a wall-job that resulted in a 25th-place run, getting wrecked with half the field at Daytona, then getting hooked and spun by Juan Pablo Montoya while hanging one on the field at Bristol a couple of weeks ago.

During this same time, Jeff Gordon has scored a pair of thirds, a sixth and a 10th-place finish – and it was dumb luck he didn’t win Pocono in July after a four-tire call late in the race, so struggling my green, white and red ass.

The other Hendrick Motorsports entries however legitimately been struggling however. Martin was on top of the world this time last season, but in 2010 he has once again had the weight of the world on his shoulders. From media members insisting he was not long for the No. 5 car just a few months after he steered it to its finest season since Terry Labonte won the title in 1996, to struggling to find any semblance of speed his team had in 2009.

Be it spoiler or crew changes, the No. 5 car is about as competitive as its equally hamstrung stable mate, the No. 88. Since Johnson’s win in Loudon, The No. 5 car has registered one top 10, but four finishes 19th or worse. Earnhardt Jr. on the other side of the shop has been a study in futility, since his fourth-place effort at Daytona in July, has only two top-20 finishes – one of which that was a 19th.

You can tell by the body language of the team, crew chief Chad Knaus and wheelman Johnson. Yeah, losing sucks, particularly when you get hooked into the wall while leading at Bristol, but this is not a bunch that gets flustered, and for the most part there is not too much to be concerned about if a fifth straight championship is the ultimate goal.

The Chase seeding process makes wins count more than anything, and while they are currently tied with the No. 11 JGR team of Denny Hamlin in victories, the No. 11 team still has them beat on parts failures and inconsistent speed. The No. 48 has been as fast as it has always been, but there have been some miscues and wrecks. As much as this team has been promoted as next to infallible, Johnson is actually prone to spinning out by himself a lot, and has been known to trigger a restrictor-plate wreck or two during the tenure of his career.

That being said, every team is statistically going to have their own share of bad luck and wrinkled racecars, so why not get it out of the way now before the Chase starts?

Keep in mind that they haven’t even rolled out the best of the best in their inventory yet. This group didn’t win four straight titles by accident – though 2008 was about the closest they came to that feat. Sprint Cup cars are constantly evolving and as much that is made about the CoT being inflexible and nothing you can do with it, there are still some new trick parts and technologies being built into these machines, and I doubt the engine room was going to stick a real bullet in it for Michigan knowing it might get dyoned afterward.

So to set the record straight for 2010: Hendrick Motorsports is not struggling – at least half of it isn’t. And Jimmie Johnson is going to be just fine come Loudon in three weeks time. You want to know who the real sleeper pick is among those contending for the top 12? The answer has been hiding in plain sight for the past 24 weeks.

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