Going into Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500, the talk of the garage was Texas Motor Speedway’s new race surface and new configuration. Even with all the new elements in Sunday’s race, Jimmie Johnson conquered TMS for the seventh time.
Yes, Johnson is a winner in 2017 after struggling during the first few weeks of the season. Surprised? You shouldn’t be.
Maybe Johnson and the No. 48 team have become victims of their own success.
Johnson won his fifth championship in a row in 2010. That was over six years ago. However, the sheer level of dominance that Johnson displayed from 2006-2010 is hard for fans and competitors alike to forget. Perhaps that is why whenever Johnson accumulates a handful of bad finishes, there is a rush throughout the NASCAR world to declare the Johnson Era officially over. Indeed, in each of the last five seasons, there has been at least one minor panic over a rash of poor results by the No. 48 team, each of which seemed to signal the close of Johnson’s time as NASCAR’s driver to beat.
The trouble was that Johnson himself never got the memo. Neither did Chad Knaus or Rick Hendrick. Because Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports once again proved that the Johnson Era is still alive and well in NASCAR.
To be sure, unwarranted concern about Johnson’s level of performance stretches back much longer than four years.
During the later stages of the summer in 2013, however, Johnson probably saw the first really unnecessary panic. Early in the season, he won the Daytona 500 and only had gotten better, winning three more times during the regular season. But suddenly, things started going badly for the No. 48 team in the last four races before the Chase. After blowing an engine at Michigan, Johnson crashed at Bristol and Atlanta, only to have a tire failure at Richmond. Johnson finished no better than 28th in any of those four races. Suddenly, fans and media members who had practically handed Johnson the championship a month ago were questioning whether or not he would even be a title contender.
If Johnson was concerned, he never showed it. In fact, he proceeded to earn two wins and nine top 10s in the postseason. It was arguably Johnson’s greatest Chase performance ever, and it carried him to championship number six. As Johnson hoisted the big trophy, all of that concern seemed rather silly.
Yet almost immediately, another Johnson panic erupted in 2014. This time, there was concern about Johnson’s lack of triumphs early on in the season. To be fair, Johnson did not win until the Coca-Cola 600, the 12th race of the season. For the No. 48 team, taking that long to win a race is pretty unusual. But Johnson was hardly struggling at the outset of 2014. Going into Charlotte, he had four top six finishes, had led over 500 laps, and was seventh in the championship standings.
Johnson’s lack of victories was a result of bad luck and circumstance rather than poor performance. Late tire troubles costed him a victory at Auto Club Speedway, and he lost out to Kurt Busch following a late-race duel at Martinsville Speedway the following week. More telling was that Johnson went on to win two of the next three races following his Charlotte victory. Once again, all the concern about Johnson proved to be unfounded.
Fast forward to the 2015 Chase, when a broken axle seal at Dover shockingly eliminated Johnson from the first round of the post-season. Once again, Johnson’s fate was a surprise, especially given his excellent record at the Monster Mile. Yet even though Johnson was eliminated from the Chase early, there was nothing wrong with his level of performance in 2015. The No. 48 team earned more wins than 2014 (5 to 4), more top fives (14 to 11), more top 10s (22 to 20), and had a better average finish (12.8 to 15.3). To say that the 2015 Chase was the beginning of the end for Johnson was another premature prognostication, especially when Johnson claimed two wins in the first five races of 2016.
Of course, Johnson did not win for a while after that. Before the Chase began, Johnson had another run of lackluster finishes, including his first-ever last place result in the Cup Series. Fans might recall that Johnson was a popular pick to get knocked out of the Chase in the first round for the second year in a row. Fans might also recall that Johnson immediately looked much stronger once the Chase began than he had in months.
After getting through the first round without issue, Johnson ensured his advancement to round three by winning at Charlotte. He then ensured his advancement to the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway by winning at Martinsville. And in that final race, with a championship on the line, Johnson won title number seven.
Everybody in the NASCAR world knows that Johnson is an immensely talented driver. We have all seen him pile up wins and championships in a way that very few other drivers have. Johnson’s seventh championship, probably his biggest accomplishment in NASCAR and one of the greatest in the history of the sport, only happened in November. Time and time again, we have seen Johnson overcome seemingly impossible odds to reach stock car racing heights that make him a legend among legends.
So why is it that, every time Johnson gets a few finishes outside the top 10, we declare his reign at the top of the NASCAR mountain over?
Maybe Sunday’s race at Texas will put the Johnson panics to rest for a while. After all, the race was indicative of what the No. 48 team does best, namely, finding a way to succeed in difficult conditions.
Johnson may not have had the fastest car on Sunday, and perhaps he has not taken as well to stage racing as some of his peers. Yet Johnson was the one wielding six-shooters and wearing a cowboy hat in Victory Lane, just like he has so many times before.
Sooner or later, Johnson will slow down. Not even a seven-time champion can outrace Father Time. Yet the almost yearly storylines about Johnson’s struggles and impending demise have long since gotten out of hand. Yes, Johnson has had some ups and downs in the last few seasons, but the No. 48 team is still very capable of winning when they need to. If Johnson’s championship in 2016 did not prove it, his win at Texas does.
Once again, reports of Johnson’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
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