Don’t let that Kansas Speedway post-accident smile fool you; Jimmie Johnson’s back is against the wall.
Here’s why: There are two races left before the next Chase cutoff – except Talladega isn’t really a race at all, but an embarrassing crapshoot where Steve Grissom had just as good of a chance at winning as Johnson. So that leaves one real race where a driver can control his own destiny and advance to the next round with a win.
After Johnson’s 40th-place finish at Kansas, he’s last in the Chase standings for the first time in his career, 44 points behind Joey Logano. Unless Kansas-style havoc ensues at Charlotte, a good points day next weekend won’t be good enough for the No. 48 team to get in the top eight, either.
Charlotte, then, is a must-win for Johnson. There’s no more room for lackluster performances in a season that’s been full of them. Expectations have certainly been high for the team that’s won six of the last eight championships. During several points in that 2006-13 stretch – most points, really – the No. 48 team was the class of the garage, at top of the charts every week.
That hasn’t the case in 2014, where it’s been a step behind the championship contenders in the second half of the season.
Maybe Johnson was just laying back, maybe crew chief and mad scientist Chad Knaus was just experimenting with the car, maybe they were playing mind games with the competition – or maybe they just weren’t that good. Whatever the case may be, there can’t be anymore of it. If the No. 48 doesn’t return to its old form this weekend, it could be the end of the road.
For Johnson and Knaus, this is uncharted territory. In all of Johnson’s championship runs, he’s never faced a race where he’s really had to win. He fell behind in the 2006 championship after wrecking in the final laps at Talladega, but he used consistency (four second-place finishes mainly) to claim his first title. Anytime Johnson’s faced a hurdle in a championship season, he’s been able to rely on consistency to claw his way back.
A big part of that consistency stemmed from having the fastest car each and every week. It doesn’t appear Johnson has that anymore, and it also looks like consistent finishes aren’t going to the right the ship. He has to win, and he has to do it now.
Charlotte isn’t a bad place for the No. 48 team to face a must-win scenario. Johnson’s won there seven times and he dominated the spring race, leading 164 laps on the way to victory. But may I remind you, we saw something very similar at Dover two races ago. Johnson, a nine-time winner at Dover, appeared untouchable in his spring race win, but never even got to the lead in the Chase race and came home third. In fairness to Johnson, he knew he didn’t have to win at Dover to advance to the next round. Consistency was enough to get by in the Chase before this.
Johnson has another huge variable working against him: there are going to be drivers just as desperate as him to win on Saturday. Leading the list is Brad Keselowski, who finished 36th at Kansas, and has shown a lot more speed than Johnson this season – plus he’s good in the clutch. There’s also Kevin Harvick, who gets around Charlotte really well and is tired of coming up short, and Kyle Larson, who is creeping closer and closer to his first win.
It took until the 31st race of the season, but we’re finally going to find out what the 2014 version of the No. 48 team is made of. It’s win or potentially get knocked out of the title race early.