Jimmie Johnson winning at Martinsville Speedway is hardly a surprise. Nine victories at the track known as the paper clip, including Sunday’s triumph, means the No. 48 team has to be a favorite anytime the series makes its way back to Martinsville.
However, since the introduction of the new elimination-style Chase format in 2014, the fall race at Martinsville holds a more important meaning: automatic advancement to the Championship 4 for the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The last two years, Johnson hasn’t been able to use his Martinsville prowess to his advantage. This will be the first time that the No. 48 team gets to race for the title in Homestead since 2013, giving Johnson the opportunity to earn his seventh career Sprint Cup Series title, which would tie him with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Sr. for the most championship won by a single driver.
But Johnson? He’s not under any impression that it’s going to be easy or that there is much he can do between now and Homestead to keep the odds in his favor.
“It is three weeks away, but I feel like at least now, an hour into it, it’s a lot different than if I was sitting here with the old format,” Johnson said. “We’re going to have four drivers with the same points value starting that race. It’s going to be different. There’s nothing to protect.
“We’re all in a tie. It’s just go out there and lay down your best work. I think that would be helpful from a stress management standpoint, thinking what could possibly happen. Love to do it. Honestly, just thrilled to have a shot at it. That’s all you can hope for, is just have a shot at it.”
For Johnson’s longtime crew chief Chad Knaus, the time between now and Homestead will be no different than any other weekend.
“I’m excited about it,” Knaus said. “I hear and I see a lot about seven. You’ve asked me a lot of these questions in the past, honestly. I’m not worried about the seventh, I’m just worried about the next. That’s what I want to do. I want to go out there and put our best foot forward as a team and go out there and try to do the best we possibly can to win the next championship. I’m not worried about the seventh or the eighth.”
The next two events before Homestead are at Texas and Phoenix, both tracks where the No. 48 team has won multiple times. There is no reason to think they can’t go out and win another race before Homestead, potentially shutting someone else out.
Still, though, despite the fact that this is Johnson’s fourth race win this season, there was a stretch during the year where it looked like Johnson wouldn’t even be a legitimate contender in the Chase, let alone make it all the way to Homestead.
The 41-year-old driver won two of the first five races of the schedule, and didn’t make it back to Victory Lane again until a few weeks ago at Charlotte Motor Speedway. During that time, he endured eight finishes outside of the top 20 and only four top-five finishes. While the summer months have never been the best for Johnson, even Johnson admitted that there were moments of frustration as they tried to get back to where they knew they were supposed to be.
“The turnaround, I’m way impressed with, especially from where we came from to where we’ve ended up,” Johnson said. “It’s one thing to see progress, but to advance and go back to leading a lot of laps and contending for many wins is very, very impressive.”
Much of that turnaround was credited to team owner Rick Hendrick.
“We couldn’t have done it on our own,” Johnson continued. “It took all four teams, then it took all the departments at Hendrick. Honestly, it took Rick Hendrick showing his commitment. For him to sit in the wind tunnel for a 24-hour shift with all the teams, his commitment. He couldn’t help being in that wind tunnel, but his presence there, the message that sent to the organization. There’s other examples like that, as well. He’s led by example. We’ve come a long way in a short period of time, which is really impressive.”
As Johnson stated previously, even with their recent uptick in performance, they are far from the favorite and certainly don’t have an advantage. That advantage still very easily and clearly goes to the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas, who were still easily the most dominant cars at Martinsville. At the same time, Johnson’s victory means at least one of them will be missing the championship race.
This format is impossible to predict, and even the favorites can easily miss out on what they may think is rightfully theirs. Johnson has been a classic example of that the last couple of years, and ask Martin Truex, Jr. how far dominance all season long got him in this year’s Chase. However, with Johnson now having officially clinched a spot in the championship race, it certainly wouldn’t be a surprise to see Johnson, Knaus, Hendrick, and all the others yet again hoisting the championship trophy at season’s end.