If there are three words that have irked me more than any others this season, they have been “Jimmie Johnson” and “slump.” Every season following Johnson’s very first championship back in 2006, a time in the season has come where Johnson and his race team performed at a level less than expected (even though they were still doing just fine) and weren’t considered a huge threat for the championship.
As we all know, anyone who said so over the last five seasons wound up eating crow and Johnson laughed all the way to the bank with the trophy and check in hand. However, I figured after five seasons, Johnson’s detractors would eventually wise up and realize that the driver and his race team just have this system figured out. Using the regular season as a test session at points, they know when it’s time to conserve and when it’s time to race.
Let me just say this much right off the bat: Johnson is _not_ in a slump right now. In fact, they aren’t even struggling. Sure, they’ve had some pit crew and communication issues this season, but tell me how that’s any different than last year where they switched pit crews midway through the race at Texas and Chad Knaus was screaming on the radio on an almost weekly basis. Meanwhile, they still managed to play enough mind games with Denny Hamlin and gain enough of an advantage on Kevin Harvick to carry the big trophy back home to Concord and sit at the head table in Las Vegas.
Johnson may not be in a slump. However, there is no denying he no longer has the advantage. In other words, it’s not that Johnson and company are struggling. On the contrary, everyone else has simply caught up. Even Knaus admitted it gets tougher and tougher every season, and the competition is tighter in 2011 that it has been in years. With 16 different winners in 27 races this season — Johnson being one of them — it’s hard to pinpoint just one “favorite” for the championship.
A lackluster finish at Chicagoland on Monday isn’t helping his bid, either. Now, a 10th-place finish and 39 laps led is nothing to be ashamed of — unless, of course, seven of the nine drivers ahead of him were Chase contenders that he’s somehow going to have to beat in the next nine weeks.
But that’s exactly what happened. Johnson fell from sixth to eighth in the standings with the top-10 run, another testament to the fact that this year’s Chase is going to be extremely competitive. Even top-10 results, week-in, week-out won’t get the job done anymore.
In Johnson’s defense, they were competitive all day, but like several other Chase drivers got bit on fuel mileage. However, this is yet another strike against them, as fuel mileage races have — whether we like it or not — become the norm on these intermediate racetracks, which make up a majority of the Chase schedule. Fuel mileage isn’t exactly this team’s strong point, a case rung home by the team’s lone victory this season (a win at Talladega Superspeedway, a crapshoot if there ever was one). While it doesn’t have to be the determining factor, I guarantee at least a couple more “strategy” races will play a major factor in this year’s championship, a competitive tilt I’m sure both Knaus and Johnson are well aware of.
With that said, no team is better at adapting to the rules and standards than the No. 48 team. These guys had the Chase figured out before most teams even got used to the idea, and everyone has spent the last several years trying to get caught up. Johnson has 19 victories in 71 Chase starts; no one else is even close to matching that record.
In addition, this will not be the first time Johnson will have to come from behind and make it back to the top. In 2006, Johnson was ninth following the Chase-opening race at Loudon, but a five-race stretch of top-2 finishes was enough to catapult the No. 48 team to the top of the standings for their first of five championships. Last season, the team was sixth following the opening Chase race, but won the following weekend at Dover and never fell any lower than second in points the rest of the year.
So what’s the point?
Well, as I said before, Johnson and his race team are definitely not in a slump. They are just facing competition the likes of which they have never had to face before. However, do _not_ count them out. Regardless of some of the struggles they’ve faced this year, the points deficit (-16 back from the leader) is not insurmountable over the course of nine weeks and several of the upcoming Chase races are some of Johnson’s best.
They may be down, but they are certainly not out.
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