“New leader, 48.”
Those three words were once the bane of every race team not associated with Jimmie Johnson. The Californian had a knack for checking out once taking over the lead, and winning often – five, six, even 10 times in a single season. Those words were the ones dreaded by the teams that Johnson beat five consecutive seasons for the Sprint Cup title.
But then NASCAR changed its Chase format. And Johnson began to get a little older. Younger drivers started to sneak out wins—and later dominate for them over the six-time champ. It wasn’t unlike what Johnson did to fellow Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon in the early 2000s – take away the thunder of a legend.
But Johnson is out to prove that he isn’t too old to compete, and while he hasn’t been as stout since his sixth title in 2013, he is still winning races. The issue was he was winning them at the wrong time, at the beginning of the season or after being eliminated from Chase competition. But with his win at Charlotte last weekend, Johnson is in the Round of 8 for the first time in his career, a round that includes three of his best tracks in Texas, Martinsville and Phoenix.
Nate Ryan already has Johnson in the Final Four. It certainly seems like he’ll be there given his record at the three tracks. And at Homestead, anything can happen. Does Johnson’s experience and hunger for that seventh title make him the favorite though?
Johnson likes to be the best. And that is the main reason why he’ll be the favorite, barring any unforeseen issues that take him out of contention, come Homestead.
I’m with Ryan. I believe Johnson will win his way into the championship race at Texas. But if not, he could very well win at Martinsville. I don’t expect he’ll win Phoenix – that’s Kevin Harvick’s race – but even in the absolute worst-case scenario that doesn’t involve wrecks or broken $5 parts, Johnson will finish strong enough to point his way in.
And from there, the other three drivers better look out, because, as stated two paragraphs before, Johnson likes to be the best. And winning a title in this format, in Johnson’s mind, is necessary to back up the claims that he’s just as good as Gordon, Earnhardt, and Petty.
He’s won them plenty of ways. He’s blown the competition away, coasting into the final race with a huge lead and only needing to avoid an early-race issue. He’s wrestled the Cup away from Denny Hamlin, jumping from second to first when all was said and done. But he hasn’t gone out and had to perform perfectly to win, something that both Harvick and Kyle Busch have done in the finale the past two seasons to earn their first Cup titles.
Going out and winning the race, and the title by extension, provides Johnson with the peace of mind he needs, but it is more than just winning another title. It’ll be his seventh, a number he’s been gunning for for years. It’ll also be his first win at Homestead.
And that’s the big hurdle for Johnson to overcome: winning at Homestead. He’s been racy before, finishing second in 2004 and 2010. He’s been a relatively solid finisher, too, despite the lack of wins: only four times through 15 races has he not finished in the top 15. But Johnson will likely need to win, and the strength of Joe Gibbs Racing on the 1.5-mile tracks will make it hard for Johnson to do so.
Luckily for Johnson, HMS is getting stronger, just starting to peak with six races left on the schedule. His win at Charlotte, combined with teammate Chase Elliott’s strong run at Chicagoland, must make the competition a little concerned that the summer struggles at HMS were perhaps nothing but a test session for the Chase, something the No. 48 team has been known to do.
At the same time, JGR’s program has taken the slightest step backwards, now vulnerable for the first time all season. And while all four drivers for Coach Gibbs are above the cut line at the moment, the team has seen some unceremonious bow-outs following Talladega in the past few seasons. It wouldn’t be surprising at all to see two drivers knocked out before Martinsville rolls around.
Add to that the struggles of Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. – despite recent wins – and Johnson’s imperfect 2016 season of consistency might just be the right course of action towards a title.
Yeah, sure, Johnson was victorious on Sunday in Charlotte in dominating fashion, but we saw a victory coming. Charlotte is one of best tracks historically for the No. 48 team, winning at the circuit eight times.
Johnson has also led 90 or more laps in three of the last four races and Hendrick Motorsports has led more laps since the start of the Chase than the rest of the season combined, but the lack of execution for the company as a whole is worrisome.
For the past decade Johnson has carried HMS on his back as we approach the 10 year anniversary since his first Cup Series title. And though having three victories is not a bad year at all, look at the other statistics.
Coming into Kansas with three consecutive top 10 finishes is the first of that feat for the No. 48 team since California through Texas at the beginning of the year, also three of Johnson’s better tracks. But, with only six races remaining, Johnson is already guaranteed to have a career-low in top 10s.
So far Johnson has 13 top 10 finishes, while his previous career-low was 20 in 2003 and 2014. Chad Knaus’ pit crew has cost the No. 48 team a couple of potential victories this season, most recently at Dover, where the team has 10 career wins. At other places, Johnson has sped on pit row or had a late race mistake that has eluded him a triumph.
Hendrick Motorsports as a whole is hitting on all eight cylinders right now as Chase Elliott led a career-high 101 laps at Charlotte. We expect Johnson to turn up the heat come Chase time and he has.
But remember those Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas? Oh yeah, they are not that far behind. Fact, Johnson is moving onto the round of eight for the first time in his career, but as of now so are all five of the Toyota drivers.
Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex, Jr. have combined to win half of the races this season. In a sport in which tenths of a second separate the field, the Toyota team has been the best 15 times in 2016.
Look at the races remaining, start with Kansas this weekend. Truex dominated in the spring, only to have a loose wheel at the end and Busch wound up on top. Talladega is a crapshoot, it’s hard to predict anything there.
The tracks in the round of eight stack up well for Johnson, as they do for the Toyota drivers. Busch was victorious at Martinsville and Texas in April, while Kevin Harvick won at Phoenix. The season finale is held at Homestead, a track where three of the Toyota drivers have won, but the No. 48 never has.
While Johnson is on a bit of a hot streak and can lay low the next couple of weeks heading into Martinsville, he better not look too far behind. He has a rear view mirror full of Camry’s waiting to pounce. They have to be the Chase favorites winning half of the races this year.
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