After suffering through the first 12 races of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, during which he didn’t win a race, Jimmie Johnson rebounded nicely with two victories in successive weeks.
That effectively ended the widespread speculation that something was wrong with Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports team, or both.
There’s a reason why Johnson was in something of a funk through the first dozen races of the season.
There’s also a reason why he broke out of it so spectacularly.
Johnson will tell you there was never a thing wrong with him. It was with his Chevrolet – or more specifically, how he was unable to get comfortable with it and produce more much-needed speed.
“Those are two completely different things,” Johnson said.
So the cure for what ailed Johnson and his team had to be found within the car.
Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, explained that the problems began as early as last season.
“What happens, and I’ve said this before, when you are fortunate enough to battle for a championship, your main focus goes solely on trying to win a championship,” he said. “So as we were going through and pursued the 2013 season championship, we lost focus on 2014.
“But that’s just inherent. That’s what happens because you have to focus on the goal that’s directly in front of you.”
So when the 2014 season began, Johnson’s team found itself a bit behind in preparation. That can cause immediate problems, especially when dealing with what is effectively a “new” car.
“With the new ride height changes and rules that they’ve got out there, the car is a different animal,” Knaus said. “I know it’s difficult to understand and it’s not easy for everybody to understand, but it does change the way you approach a race car.
“The advantages that we had last year were minimized with these new rules, so we had to try to find some new advantages and new ways to get the car set up to where Jimmie is happy with it.”
Searching for new advantages was what the Hendrick team was doing through the first 12 weeks of racing.
Performance-wise, Johnson was far from spectacular. He did finish second at Martinsville – and six more times among the top 10 – but he also had very uncharacteristic finishes of 19th, 23rd, 24th, 25th and 32nd. He was seventh in points coming into Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600.
In that event everything changed. Johnson won the pole and the race. Before the green flag dropped, he was the hands-down favorite
“Actually going into the 600 I told Jimmie we were taking his favorite car to the track for the race,” Knaus said. “And I told him that his new favorite car was going to be going to Dover the following week.
“And then I told him his next favorite car was going to be going to Indianapolis. So far I’m doing pretty good, and hopefully we can keep it true.”
Obviously promising Johnson his “favorite” race car was not enough to turn things around. Knaus won’t say specifically what did it, but he acknowledges the work that went into it.
“The one thing I’m really impressed with at Hendrick Motorsports is when we do get behind, which we feel like we’ve been just a pinch behind this year, everybody digs down really, really deep and they work hard,” he said. “From the pit crew, from the guys that hang the bodies to the guys that build the chassis to the guys that build the engines – they try to find an advantage.”
Johnson won at Dover for the ninth time in his career, which makes him the track’s all-time winner. He has led more than 50 percent of the laps he’s run at the one-mile track, including the 272 he led in the FedEx 400 last weekend.
Knaus admits Charlotte and Dover are two of Johnson’s favorite tracks and that he’s always expected to do well on both of them.
“We came to Dover with high expectations, obviously, after winning the 600,” Knaus said. “We came here with a brand new race car and things went really well for us straight out of the gate.
“But I feel like we’ve still got to room to grow. I’m looking forward to the next series of race cars that we build at Hendrick Motorsports. I’m excited about that.
“We’re close. We had good race cars at Charlotte and Dover. But it needs to be a bit better.
“So I think if we can start digging in a little bit deeper we’ll finally have what we want when we get to about September time.”
Which does not bode well for the competition.