LONG POND, Pa. — When the average NASCAR fan thinks of Jimmie Johnson, indomitability and seven Cup championships come to mind.
Those are Johnson’s most noteworthy and extinguished traits, so having that view of the longtime wheelman of Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 is expected. It’s natural, too, because as a collective society, we obsess over stardom and sporting giants. And for some reason, our attention is also wired to obsess and gossip over struggles, especially if that star athlete stumbles into a prolonged slump or tailspins in performance.
If you’ve been following along, you know where this is going. In his 600th Monster Energy Cup Series start and not even two full seasons removed from a record-tying seven Cup championships, Johnson enters this Sunday’s Gander Outdoors 400 at Pocono Raceway mired in a 43-race winless spell, on the one-year anniversary — if you even want to call it that — of Hendrick Motorsports’ last win.
It’s the longest Johnson has gone without a win in the Cup Series, dating back to Dover last May. From first glance, it’s uncharted territory. But is it?
“I’ve had a lot of different tough times in my career that many forget about, or maybe don’t even know because I’ve been doing it so damn long,” Johnson said with a laugh. “My Busch [Series] days, my ASA days, periods of times in off-road racing, periods of times in motocross, as I was learning a new car, a sport, a new division I should say, there’s always been tough times. Those tough times made me into who I am today. And what we’re going through right now is only going to make me stronger.”
Prior to emerging onto the Cup Series circuit full-time in 2002, he won just once and finished in the top five four times over a 72-race span in the then-Busch Series (now XFINITY Series). He also never finished higher than eighth in the standings. On the ASA National Tour in 1998 and 1999, he visited Victory Lane twice in 40 races.
There was no clear indication Johnson would ever reach championship form in a stock car, and now those doubts have resurfaced. Statistically speaking, this is Johnson’s worst season at the Cup level. Through 20 races, he’s led just 15 laps with two top fives and seven top 10s. He also sits 12th in the standings with the playoffs looming (he’s never finished worst than 10th) and carries an average finish of 15.2. His average starting position, meanwhile, is 19.8 — the worst in his 18-year tenure by 2.9 positions — which also means the pure speed is below average.
“It’s been a tough 18 months. There’s no doubt about it,” said Johnson, whose last victory came at Dover last May. “I think I, personally, have gone through moments of, am I confident in myself or am I not confident in myself? Is it this or that? I’m human. It’s impossible to not be hard on myself.
“Any athlete, it doesn’t matter the sport that you’re in, when you have a dry spell of this type, this scenario for a long stretch of time, it’s tough on you. And it’s been tough on me. The cool thing is, though, I continue to wake up every morning and pinch myself I drive a racecar for a living. This is a sport I get to make a career; start as a hobby.”
There is room for optimism, though. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus believe they are starting to get a grip on the new Camaro and that impression showed in flashes last weekend at New Hampshire. Johnson finished 10th, his first top 10 in over a month since the first Pocono race 55 days ago.
“I think last weekend was a strong indicator that we’re heading the right direction,” Johnson said. “We’ve had various of high spots along the way. … We continue to see high spots, or things that are very motivating for us, the excitement we bring to the track each week.”
It’s also worth noting, at the shop at least, Johnson isn’t only worrying about himself these days. Terry Labonte, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are long gone. Instead, Johnson’s three teammates combine for roughly six years of Cup experience, including the son of a NASCAR Hall-of-Famer who is still searching for his first win and trying to meet high expectations. The other two are rookies by definition standards — one in the Hendrick organization (Alex Bowman) and first-year Cup driver William Byron.
It’s required Johnson to shoulder leadership responsibilities and take charge of intense debriefs, prep sessions, film sessions and note reviews.
“From a sheer volume standpoint alone is way different than when I first started,” Johnson said. “It leads to physically more time in front of my guys. It also means there’s some element I feel a driver can play from a coaching standpoint and a moral standpoint, and being involved and engaged, and lifting morale and keeping motivated.”
Realistically, the 48 is a third-tier team at the moment. We’ll say the “Big 3,” Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex are on a platform of their own. Second-tier teams might include drivers who have knocked on the door consistently, like Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin.
Who knows if Johnson will ever return to championship form. Lowe’s has dropped its long-time sponsorship and Knaus is signed for the next two years, so the window is closing. But it should be known this isn’t the first time Johnson has had to pick himself up and press onward with no clear sign things will get better. So, maybe, just maybe, another glorious reward is on the other side of the mountainous hump.
“For myself and the 48 race team, I think for our company, it’s been way more challenging than we anticipated,” Johnson said. “It took us a while to get into those positions. It’s going to take a while to get out of it.