If there is one thing we have learned over the past decade of Sprint Cup Series racing, it’s this: never count out Jimmie Johnson.
Granted, Johnson didn’t make it past the Round of 12 during the first two years of NASCAR’s elimination-style Chase format. At the same time, though he had been eliminated, he won a race in the last four events of the season in 2014 and 2015, and ran very well in those time frames.
Even when Johnson was out, he was still a factor.
Prior to Sunday’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway (a race that was postponed from Saturday night), Johnson was good but not great. Hendrick Motorsports as a whole had lacked speed through most of the year. Johnson had two race wins – the only driver from HMS with a win at all this year – and as of late had been running well, but had not exhibited the dominance that had allowed him to win six Sprint Cup championships in years prior.
Except recently, the No. 48 car had been spending a lot more time up front. He led 37 laps at Michigan, 118 laps at Chicago, and 90 at Dover.
Sunday at Michigan, Johnson led 155 of the 334 laps en route to his third victory of the season, and punched his ticket into the Round of 8 for the first time in this format’s existence.
“When you drive for Rick Hendrick and have all the great people at Hendrick Motorsports working for you, the great support from Lowe’s and everyone in their stores and Chevrolet, there are just so many great people behind us and that support us to make this happen,” Johnson said in Victory Lane. “We knew we would get back. Yes, it was slower than we wanted it to be, but to be here today and have this victory is great.”
Though the Toyotas have been – and still are – the favorites for the championship, the Chevrolets have made some considerable
ground in the last few weeks. Additionally, Johnson and his No. 48 team are masters of consistency. While that’s proven to not be enough the last few years, the fact that they are now locked in regardless of what happens next week in Kansas and the following week in Talladega, and considering the strength of this team at the tracks in the Round of 8, means that the No. 48 car has to be considered a favorite as the season winds down.
“It gives us — I don’t know what our plan would be at Kansas, but it certainly opens up the book, whatever opportunities may present themselves,” Johnson said postrace. “It lets me go to Talladega and not worry about anything, which is fantastic. I can just get up in the race and mix it up, and race hard. As you pointed out, Texas, Martinsville, and even Phoenix, we’ve been very competitive at Phoenix, so good things ahead for us.”
At the same time, Johnson is not resting on his laurels, and realizes that this isn’t going to be as simple as cruising to the championship.
“We have to take it one day at a time and one race at a time, and I still feel like we can bring better cars to the racetrack,” Johnson continued. “Right now we’ve hit on some things and we still have more ideas and we feel like more opportunity ahead of us. We can’t sit back and celebrate too much on this. We’ve got to buckle down and get to work tomorrow and keep advancing our race cars. But this does buy us a couple weeks of freedom.”
Granted, Martin Truex, Jr., Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, etc., have still exhibited a tremendous amount of strength already in this Chase. Johnson is one of many and there is only room for four in the championship race at Homestead. However, Johnson has momentum on his side right now and may have peaked at the right time in order to be in contention when it really matters.