Jimmie Johnson comments on snapping 15-race skid without a top five at Dover
By Kyle McFadden
October 5, 2017
Jimmie Johnson has always been known as the model of indomitability. If you aren’t associated with the No. 48, it usually takes every tool in the toolbox to challenge for trophies week in and week out.
This year, however, has been different. Up until this past weekend at Dover, Johnson bungled through the worst skid of his 15 full Cup seasons, going 15 races without a top five.
The seven-time champion in NASCAR’s premier circuit halted the drought Sunday with a third-place finish at the Monster Mile, a good sign for things to come as the Playoffs ramp up over the next few weeks.
“We had a very competitive car [Sunday]. … The car was good,” Johnson said. “We just kind of fought track position, which I wish I did a better job on Friday; got us up in the top three sooner.
“It’s so tough to pass, whoever got off pit road or had control of a restart was really in the catbird seat. But a great day for our Lowe’s Chevy. … Usually, if you run well at Dover, you run well at Charlotte. So we’re excited for to go to next week as well.”
Through the dominance, who would’ve thought we’d need one top five showing from Johnson to confirm a pulse as a legitimate title contender. It’s worth noting that Johnson isn’t completely foreign when it come to facing adversity and slumps like these.
In 2006, before he won his first championship, he went nine races without a top five. Four years later, in 2010, he went through a seven-race stretch without a top five, and in 2014, a seven-race spell of no top fives.
Heck, Johnson even went through a nine-race span last year without a top five finish. Shortly after, he went onto win his seventh Cup title, cementing himself next to Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty. Oh, and he also bounced back to win his fifth title in a row in 2010, a NASCAR record.
He’s as resilient as they come. But, seriously, what are the chances of Johnson winning an eighth? Especially on the heels of the worst slump of his career and considering he hasn’t posted back-to-back top five finishes since April.
For the first time ever, at least on my watch, Johnson showed vulnerability after the race Sunday. Here’s an explanation as to why Johnson is on pace for his worst statistical season ever.
“We’re starting to develop the opinion that banked tracks, our cars are competitive. When we get to the flat tracks, it can be a couple different aspects as to why we’re off,” Johnson said Sunday. “The flatter the track, it seems the more we struggle.
“Our first laps on track this weekend on the banked track was fast. We adjusted the car and it actually made a difference; it made the car better. We gotta get to the bottom of that.”
Johnson then expressed his eagerness toward Chevy’s switch from the Chevrolet SS to the Camaro next year, saying it “will help us a lot on the flat tracks when you have the air to hold the car versus the banking on these banked tracks.”
Johnson currently sits fifth in points heading into Round 2 this weekend at Charlotte, 42 points back of leader Martin Truex Jr. and nine points ahead of the cutline for NASCAR’s version of the elite eight.
The good news for Johnson is there’s a handful of tracks in his wheelhouse with seven races and three rounds remaining. Look no further than to this weekend’s stop, Charlotte, a place where he’s won eight times and has the fourth-best driver racing among active drivers since 2015. Talladega and Kansas are the other two tracks in Round 2.
Not much stock should be taken into recent performances at Talladega. It’s a total crapshoot. But all Johnson has to do at Talladega is avoid the detrimental wreck and a points-crippling DNF, and he should be in good position for Kansas, his sixth-best track in terms of average finish since 2015.
Johnson isn’t in a must-win situation in Round 2. A win would certainly thrust Johnson toward the top of the title picture and automatically clinch a spot in the “elite eight,” but his positioning is stable enough without a trip to victory lane at the moment.
Round 3, however, with Martinsville, Texas and Phoenix on the docket, brings a different story.
You can only take four drivers to Homestead’s championship weekend, so expect a logjam. It could very well come down to stage points, but if I’m the No. 48 camp, I’m pegging Texas a must-win.
Over the past five races at the track, Johnson has three wins and four top fives. It’s his best track over the past three years. Anything short of a win means he needs solid runs at Martinsville and Phoenix, two tracks outside of his top 10 statistically, and both have flat racing surfaces, a weakness Johnson admitted this past weekend.
No duo in the business is better at plotting around race weekend than Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. They know what they’re doing, and in the midst of their worst season ever, they manage to sit fifth in the standings with seven races to go. The four guys in front of him have their vulnerabilities, too.
Truex folded at around this time last year, and Homestead is one of his worst tracks. Kyle Larson has never made it to the finale in contention for a title. So, who knows how he’s going to react.
Kyle Busch, on the other hand, is the epitome of a loose cannon and can let his emotions get the best of him at times. Brad Keselowski has had his share of inconsistencies as well, periods where he’d fade in and out.
Johnson has always been cool, calm and collective; almost to a point where he’s robotic. He also approaches tasks -- tall ones, especially -- in chunks. This circumstance is no different. Step number one is already chalked up: Survive Round 1 and bottle some kind of momentum into the most crucial time of the year.
“It was nice to see the front again,” Johnson said Sunday. “First time I’ve seen the front in a few months.”
Austin McFadden/The Racing Experts