How many times have we seen it? – Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team come off a brutal summer stretch of races and struggles into the opening race of the Chase for Sprint Cup.
More often than not. And despite that, how many of those times has Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the No. 48 team put it together over the last 10 races to win the championship? Six out of the last 10 seasons.
However, this year feels different.
It seems as if the field may finally be one step ahead of Johnson, who is attempting what would be a record-tying seventh points championship, tying Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Richard Petty with the most Sprint Cup Series championships ever achieved by one driver.
Why is that? It stems partly from his performance this year and partly from the brave new world that is the 2014 Chase format.
Check out his performance on 1.5-mile speedways in 2014. Johnson has the most career wins on this type of track in NASCAR history, but Johnson hasn’t quite shown that strength this season. His win at the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway last May is his only win on such a track in 2014. What is even more unusual is Johnson has only two top-5 finishes on 1.5-mile speedways this season – his win at Charlotte and a fourth-place finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Instead, Johnson started the 2014 chase off at Chicago with a 12th-place finish, which by his standards is like finishing outside the top 20. While Johnson has an average finish of 9.5 on intermediate tracks this season, he has also lacked speed in comparison to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon in addition to Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski, who are three of his main championship rivals this season. While Johnson is expected to easily get out of the first round of the Chase, his quest for seven will be dictated by his success at Kansas Speedway and Charlotte, which kick off round two. He must rely on the tracks that have been his wheelhouse to get the job done.
Because then there’s Talladega. While Johnson has two wins at the 2.66-mile oval, including one of the closest margins of victory in NASCAR history in 2011, his track record is anything but sterling. In 25 career starts, he has 10 top-10 finishes and seven finishes of 30th or worse. However, if there is a bright spot for Johnson at Talladega, it’s that he has five top-10 finishes in the last seven Chase races at the track. Chances are he would much rather be locked in the next round before he reaches Talladega than having to win there to stay alive – something that can probably be said for everyone involved.
Additionally, I know it’s hard to consider Knaus as a reason for vulnerability; however, he has been this season. The communication between Johnson and Knaus isn’t the usual crisp communication we have come to expect from one of the most successful driver/crew chief combinations in NASCAR history. Whether they have been testing new setups leading up to the Chase or wires getting crossed mid-race, the lack of speed has had much of the NASCAR fan base scratching their heads. For Johnson and Knaus to make it to Homestead as part of the championship conversation, they have to get back to what got them to this point and what made them six-time champions.
If he does make it to the final round, the last piece of the puzzle is Homestead-Miami Speedway – and things aren’t going to be the way they used to be. Other than 2010, Johnson has had the luxury of going in with a fairly comfortable points leads, affording him the opportunity just to ride around and finish solid to lock up the championship. That luxury will be nonexistent this year as NASCAR’s new Chase format put a winner-take-all scenario into play at Homestead. The problem for Johnson is that, despite his success there stemming from his championship wins, he has never won at Homestead. In 13 career starts, Johnson’s best finish at Homestead is second, on two occasions.
This year, second may not be good enough. If Johnson is part of the final four at Homestead, the mind set for him and Knaus will go from protecting a lead to winning the race and championship – something they have never experienced.
Is Jimmie Johnson vulnerable in 2014? Yes.
But even then, should you bet against him? Well, he’s certainly been in a behind-the-curve position before heading into the Chase, and we saw how that turned out.