CHARLOTTE, N.C. — There was something different about Jimmie Johnson this year as he readied for yet another challenge to his reign of NASCAR.
The five-time defending champion had a clear understanding that his record-setting run couldn’t last forever. Eventually, somebody would figure out how to beat him, and if Johnson were a gambler, well, he probably wouldn’t like the odds of him holding off 11 other drivers for a sixth consecutive year.
That’s not to say he had any intention of rolling over for the competition. If Johnson is to be dethroned this year, he’s going to go down swinging.
Now, just two races into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, many believe the 5-time champ is already on the ropes.
His 18th-place finish at New Hampshire on Sunday dropped Johnson to 10th in the 12-driver Chase field. It’s the lowest Johnson has ever been ranked in the 12-driver format, and he trails leader Tony Stewart by 29 points.
He knows he needs to be pretty close to perfect from here on out to hold onto his title.
“We need eight great ones from here,” Johnson said. “We can’t run 10th anymore. We need a bunch of Ws.”’
Only Johnson doesn’t seem to have a bunch of victories in him. He’s got only one this season, at Talladega in April, and that’s actually his only victory over the last year. Then there’s the tense radio chatter between Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus midway through Sunday’s race.
With the No. 48 Chevrolet not handling to Johnson’s liking, Knaus tried to keep the driver motivated and focused. Johnson didn’t want to hear it, told Knaus his cheerleading was “annoying” and essentially demanded the crew chief shut up and let him drive.
So, yeah, there’s some compelling evidence to the argument that Johnson is in deep trouble after only two weeks.
Do so, though, at your own risk because counting out Johnson is about the dumbest thing his rivals could possibly do right now.
Maybe it seems too long ago, but Johnson prepared for this Chase with seven top-10 finishes in nine races. During a five-race span over the last month, he finished second twice and fourth twice.
And maybe everybody forgets Round 1 of the Chase, when Johnson led 39 laps and had to back off racing for the win to conserve fuel. He was running third when he ran out of gas as he took the flag on the final lap, and he faded to a 10th-place finish.
As the celebration on Stewart’s first win of the season faded, the talk shifted to Johnson and the strong statement his Hendrick Motorsports team made at Chicago. “He ran out of gas and still finished 10th! If that’s his bad day, everybody else is in trouble.”
Now here we are, one poor run later, and suddenly the guy is finished?
His little spat with Knaus, in the grand scheme of things, was nothing to be alarmed about and not all that out of the ordinary. Little has been said about Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch or Kevin Harvick, who all got testy on the radio at times Sunday.
Then there’s Stewart, the sudden points leader after wins in the first two Chase races, who cryptically credited the removal of some “dead weight” as reason for his surge. His refusal to elaborate left most everyone wondering about his current state of mind.
Sure, Johnson is in a hole right now. But nobody is immune from a bad race or two, Stewart isn’t going to win all 10 Chase races, and Johnson has some very good tracks looming.
Johnson has a combined 26 career victories at the eight remaining Chase tracks. In 129 starts, he’s got 94 top-10 finishes and an average finish of 9.8.
First up is Round 3 of the Chase, at Dover, where Johnson has six career victories. Toss out crashes in 2003 and 2004, and Johnson’s lowest finish is 16th. He’s got three wins in his last five visits to Dover, including a victory in last year’s Chase.
He’s been down in the Chase before, maybe not this low, and not under the 43-to-1 points system that went into effect this season. Only Johnson and Knaus know if their Hendrick Motorsports team is off a tick this year, and they just can’t run at the same level they did the past five years.
But even if they did, they’d still give it everything they have down to the final checkered flag.
“My optimism is still high,” Johnson said. “These first two races did not start as we had hoped that they would, but eight to go, there’s still a lot that can happen. Past experience really helps with the mental side of it going into the next event and for my guys.
“Not the day that we wanted, but we’ll come back strong next week.”
Only a fool would doubt that.