Ever since the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series began utilizing a postseason format, Jimmie Johnson has been part of the championship fight. For 15 straight seasons, no matter what guidelines NASCAR instituted for the Chase/playoffs, Johnson was always there.
That streak came to an end on Sunday (Sept. 8), when Johnson failed to make the 2019 playoffs.
He came into the Brickyard 400 in the midst of a difficult season. Through 25 races, he posted only three top fives and eight top 10s. Those results had left Johnson hovering around the playoff bubble for most of the season. Seven consecutive finishes of 15th or worse dropped him to 18th in the standings, needing to make up 18 points in Indianapolis to reach the postseason. While Johnson had a solid run going, a three-wide move through turn 2 just after a lap 105 restart proved to be his undoing.
The No. 48 car got loose, slid across the track and backed into the wall, dealing the fatal blow to Johnson’s playoff hopes.
Seeing the playoffs commencing without Johnson is bizarre. But what is even more bizarre is his new status as a subject of pity. All season long, many in the NASCAR world have bemoaned Johnson’s poor finishes as a result of bad luck. They have agonized over his lengthy winless streak, anxiously awaiting the day when the No. 48 would pull into victory lane and lady luck will smile on the seven-time champ once more.
I don’t understand where this sentiment is coming from. Sure, Johnson has experienced some unlucky moments this season. As a fan, it is easy to get caught up in those moments and wallow in frustration when your driver is struggling.
But Johnson isn’t just any other driver. He is the most successful driver of his generation. He is one of only three in the history of NASCAR to win seven Cup Series titles.
For the vast majority of his career, Johnson has been an elite racer who has scaled heights in the world of NASCAR that none of his contemporaries can match. To have two comparatively rough seasons overshadow 15 years of excellence to the point that he must be pitied is crazy.
Think back to 10 years ago, when the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet was arguably at the height of his dominance. He may have finished out the Chase stronger in 2007 or enjoyed a better average finish in 2013, but 2009 was the year when he won his fourth consecutive championship. That title broke Cale Yarborough’s record for consecutive Cup Series championships, a record that stood for 30 years. Dale Earnhardt never won three championships in a row. Jeff Gordon didn’t win three in a row either. But Johnson found a way, and he even came back in 2010 to win a fifth consecutive title. Year after year, no one could beat the No. 48.
Naturally, it was around this time when fans complained about Johnson’s run of success. The thought was that he had too much good luck, and that good fortune was the primary reason he walked away with the championship each year. It didn’t help that his second title in 2007 came at the expense of Gordon, by that time a veteran racer and fan favorite. Worse yet was when Johnson cruised to the 2009 championship and denied sentimental favorite Mark Martin one last shot at hoisting the big trophy. Indeed, his march to the championship each year seemed almost inevitable, and for many fans, luck was the only explanation.
When Kevin Harvick quipped that Johnson must have a golden horseshoe lodged, well, within himself, no doubt many within the sport would have been quick to agree.
But just like present-day Johnson fans, those who complained about the No. 48 team’s good luck in years gone by were prisoners of the moment. He earned his titles by outperforming the competition. When it came time to race for the championship, nobody elevated their game better than Johnson, Chad Knaus and Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 bunch. That, more than any other reason, is why he won titles year-after-year.
Now, it is not improper to say that luck did play a role in Johnson winning those championships.
Luck factors into every championship battle in motorsports. It takes good luck to win one title and a whole lot of good luck to win seven. Yet where seasons and championship battles are concerned, level of performance over weeks and months is always going to have a greater impact than individual lucky or unlucky breaks. Just as good luck was not the number one factor in Johnson winning his championships, bad luck is not the number one factor in him missing the 2019 playoffs. Put simply, good performance magnifies good luck, and bad performance magnifies bad luck.
Johnson knows this better than anyone. His comments after crashing out of Sunday’s race are telling.
“Unfortunately, we had about 25 races that led to the position we’re in here today,” he explained. “Needed a stellar day, and I think we were having a strong day, and just really proud of my team and where we’re at and what’s been going on.
“I think it’s pretty impressive, the run we’ve been on, to be in the playoffs for this many consecutive years,” Johnson added. “We have that to be proud of. Sure, we wanted to continue it on, but the goal (now) is to win a race. This team is getting stronger each and every week. (Crew chief) Cliff Daniels is doing an amazing job leading this group of allies, and we’re ready to roll.
“So we’ll dust ourselves off and go to Vegas and try to get a trophy.”
Note how he doesn’t say anything about bad luck. On the contrary, those comments are remarkably positive for a driver experiencing one of the lowest points of his career.
In the first place, Johnson acknowledged that his position is a result of “25 races,” a regular season’s worth of events in which the No. 48 team’s performance wasn’t where it needed to be. He also acknowledged that the “strong run” he had going probably was not going to be the “stellar run” he needed. Otherwise, he expressed cautious optimism for the weeks ahead, complimented his team, and reminded everyone of the unprecedented playoff run he has enjoyed throughout his career.
Johnson knows that his legacy in NASCAR is secure.
Whatever struggles he is going through now; it is assured that his career is going to be remembered more for its peaks than its valleys. No doubt he and the No. 48 team will be disappointed with the outcome of Sunday’s race. Any highly competitive individual would be. But fans should not feel bad for Johnson, because he certainly won’t be feeling bad for himself.