Observations on a driver who is a multiple champion – and has made a good effort for another title in 2011 – and a very popular competitor who hopes to, finally, be at the top of the points for the first time in his career.
The former driver, as said, is right in step. The latter, however, has slipped competitively in the last several weeks and is in danger of not making the Chase – again.
Jimmie Johnson is a five-time Sprint Cup champion who has parlayed his talent, the savvy of his crew chief Chad Knaus and the strength of his Hendrick Motorsports team into record-setting success in NASCAR.
He’s after a sixth consecutive championship in 2011 and, at this point, he’s in pretty good shape. He’s second in points, just seven points behind Carl Edwards, with just seven races to go before the Chase begins.
Given that he’s also earned a victory, which gives him a measure of insurance under NASCAR’s new “playoff” entry system, there seems to be little doubt that Johnson will again contend for a championship.
But many have said Johnson hasn’t been quite the force he was in the past. He seems vulnerable. He started the season in very good form but many times since has often been plagued by atypical problems.
There have been pit road miscues and at times he’s competed in a car that is clearly not the class of the field, as it has been many times in the past.
But Johnson and team have pressed forward with the kind determination and tenacity almost championship-caliber teams share.
They have, for the most part, overcome a myriad of problems to earn high finishes, and consequently more points, than most could have expected.
Instead of languishing back in the pack or sitting helplessly in the garage area, Johnson and the Hendrick team have overcome. So much so that it’s been asked, “Where the heck did they come from?”
A very good example of this came at New Hampshire. In that race Johnson had so many difficulties that he should have been down and out instead of doggedly pushing his way into a fifth-place finish.
He didn’t qualify well, settling for the 28th position. But he moved into the lead and hovered around the top-five until, while running second, he fell victim to a pit miscue – something, oddly, not all that uncommon for him this year – on lap 217.
He had to come back down pit road with a loose lug nut, which sent him back to 35th place with well less than 100 laps remaining.
Still, he rallied. He moved into sixth position by lap 241. Then while scrapping with Juan Pablo Montoya for fifth place there was contact between the two. Johnson’s No. 48 spun and was once again sent to the rear of field.
It’s not likely Johnson is going to invite Montoya to dinner any time soon.
Rather than accept an unkind fate Johnson showed he’s a competitor of true grit. Somehow – rest assured, it was mystifying to many – he was in fifth place race’s end.
What could have been a disastrous day in New England was avoided, and then some. Johnson, who has 54 career victories, overcame. He said, given the circumstances, he and his team did it the hard way.
Imagine the kind of day they might have had if things had been easy.
I’ve seen this type of thing many times before and have come to the same conclusion as other veteran NASCAR observers.
All teams face adversity. It’s the good ones that overcome it and the great ones do so routinely.
New Hampshire offered a good example of how great Johnson’s Hendrick team has been, and still is.
A sixth title is possible – in fact, very much so. Don’t think for a moment Johnson and team don’t believe that and have clearly demonstrated their desire to earn it.
** For quite a while it seemed Dale Earnhardt Jr. was well on his way to a spot in the Chase, which he’s failed to make in three of the last four seasons.
Earnhardt Jr., who is Johnson’s teammate at Hendrick, rose to as high as third in points until he went into a summer swoon. In the four starts before New Hampshire, he plunged to ninth in points.
Presently he’s only seven points within the top 10, just ahead of a resurgent Tony Stewart, second at New Hampshire, and Denny Hamlin, who are tied for 10th.
Earnhardt Jr. is the only driver among the top 10 without a victory, which makes things even more precarious for him.
The Hendrick driver averaged a 28th-place finish during his four-race free fall prior to New Hampshire, where he finished 15th.
That wasn’t great – yet another finish out of the top 10 – but under the circumstances and how his car ran, Earnhardt Jr. will take it.
But if he wants to make the Chase, which begins on Sept. 18 at Chicagoland, he cannot afford to run out of the top 10. Fact is, his situation would greatly improve with a series of top-five runs. Oh, and a victory – he hasn’t won since Michigan in June of 2008 – would well serve his cause, obviously.
It’s been suggested that the media makes too much of Earnhardt Jr., particularly now. But given his heritage and his massive popularity among NASCAR fans, it’s very hard to ignore him.
Plus, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a driver more excited or brimming with confidence than Earnhardt Jr. was when it was announced he would race for Hendrick starting in 2008.
In his opinion, he joined a team with which he could win races and championships. Many agreed.
However, now in his fourth season with Hendrick, there’s been only one win and one year in which he was a title contender.
But in the passing few weeks things have become grim.
For Earnhardt Jr., however, they are by no means hopeless. He may be hanging on by his fingernails now, but there is time – not much of it – for him to get the firm grip he once had.