After only a couple of races in the Chase for the Sprint Cup the notion has arisen that defending champion Jimmie Johnson has, so far, been anything but a championship contender.
This would normally be only conjecture – not to mention a surprise. After all Johnson is the defending champ. He’s won six career titles including five in a row from 2005-2010.
He’s second in career championships only to Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, who have seven each.
But the facts are these: Yes, Johnson has three wins this season. He’s won at Charlotte, Dover and Michigan – a clear indication he got hotter as the weather warmed up.
At the 26th race of the season, at Richmond before the Chase began, Johnson finished eighth and moved into fourth place in the Chase after re-seeding. He was one of four drivers to win three races.
So far, so good – I mean, nothing much different there for the veteran title contender.
But Johnson started sluggish out of the Chase. He finished 12th at Chicagoland, which isn’t all that bad of itself, but when compared to No. 1 seed Brad Keselowski, who won and earned his way into the second round of eliminations, well, it wasn’t all that good.
Johnson came back strong with a fifth-place finish at Loudon, but, again, it was Team Penske that held sway as Joey Logano won the race.
As it now stands Johnson is fourth in points behind Keselowski and Logano, the Penske drivers in first and second place, and the steady Kevin Harvick.
Let’s be honest. It doesn’t really matter that Johnson compiled four straight top-10 finishes before the Chase began or that he tripped a bit when it started.
It really doesn’t matter that he returned to form with a top-five at Loudon.
We’re talking about Johnson. We’re talking about a guy who is expected to contend for a championship. After all, given his record, could we anticipate anything else?
That he has not roared to the top of the point standings with at least one victory in hand seems something of an anomaly.
Johnson understands this scenario. He’s been there. And he knows that it will take a change in performance to establish what is expected of him and his team.
“To be honest about it, we hold ourselves to a higher level and expect to operate at a higher level,” he said. “But it’s the same that we’ve probably had through the majority of the year, where we’ve been good. We had a small window of being great.
“But in any competitive sport, if you’re not great, it’s hard to have a ray of sunshine shining through in certain areas. So we’re realists.
“As the No. 48 and in the culture of Hendrick Motorsports, we expect a lot out of ourselves, let alone what any outside pressure would be. And we’re not where we want to be.”
For the moment being not where he wants to be means that Johnson wants to attempt to drop no lower than fourth in points and, of course, rise from there with continued improved performance and even victories.
“I’m trying to get my head around how do I drive a tighter race car?” Johnson said. “And then, how do we get speed? We had it right for three races this year, so it’s in there.
“But, you all see how close the times are in practice and qualifying in the race. You’re not looking for a ton, just a half a tenth to a tenth will completely turn things around.
“So, we’re looking for just that little sliver of speed to get back to a dominant position.”
Truth be told, Johnson can do it.
Last year he won two races in the Chase. He won four in 2009, the season of his fourth title. He won three in 2008 and a remarkable four in a row in 2007.
So, with eight races remaining in the Chase how can we honestly say he won’t go on a similar hot streak that brings him another title – even though the odds seem to be against him?
“Believe me, we’re working our guts out to find the speed and to be that dominant car,” Johnson said. “But, truthfully, we’re not the dominant car right now. We’re a good car.
“We still have eight weeks to get our act together. If we continue to get the most out of our good car and have a great car at Homestead, if we’re in that position, then we can get a seventh championship.”