Jeff Gordon says his first impression of Jimmie Johnson was that once he won a championship everyone should look out. The reason, Gordon said, was that he saw the potential for the No. 48 Lowe’s team to go on a streak.
Five years later though, he never thought they would have gone on that type of streak. Johnson is the five-time and defending Sprint Cup Series champion but for the first time in five years the day that many fans have been waiting for could be around the corner. Johnson might not be at the head table in Las Vegas at seasons end.
[media-credit id=42 align=”alignright” width=”223″][/media-credit]With just three races remaining in the 2011 Chase Johnson sits sixth in points, 43 points out of the lead. It might not sound all that steep, but considering NASCAR’s new point system and the way that the top five drivers have been running, Johnson has a tough battle ahead.
“It’s disappointing to say the least,” said Johnson at Texas about his position. “It is easy to find an angle, if we didn’t have the speed and we had other issues going on from an on-track perspective, we didn’t have the speed, we couldn’t compete, pit road problems, whatever is it, we do not have that this year.”
Johnson acknowledged that his team had a rough summer stretch, where they didn’t have the speed on the mile-and-a-half tracks. They also had pit road problems. However, there has just been something about the 48 team this year that hasn’t been in years past. They have been no tears of winning races, only having one win before Kansas the fourth race of the Chase, and that came at the crapshoot in Talladega.
Untimely cautions and fuel mileage during races put Johnson in positions that he couldn’t climb out of. Unlike when he seemed to have all the luck, prompting Kevin Harvick to start the lucky horseshoe comments that many quickly latched onto.
“Even past Chases we can look at last year and say what we did here changing pit crews out was huge,” said Johnson. “I admitted then that we didn’t have the speed to run with the No. 11 [Denny Hamlin], but we found a way to get it done. This year, in this Chase we have had the speed on pit road and on the racetrack and we just have not finished the races off like we needed to, to stay in contention.”
Races like Fontana at the start of the season when Harvick beat Johnson on the last lap. Martinsville in April, Johnson had a top three car but finished ninth after speeding on pit road. There was Dover in June when he again had a top two car but crew chief Chad Knaus made the wrong pit call and was beaten by Matt Kenseth’s two tires.
Races where Johnson was leading near the end, such as Martinsville last weekend, he still didn’t leave with a win. To date, he only has two victories, something that no one is used to seeing and what Johnson isn’t used to feeling. As the season has wound down, the wondering began about whether it would be Johnson’s year or were they just waiting for the Chase to do what they do best.
“That responsibility ultimately lands on my shoulders and to a certain degree on Chad’s,” Johnson said. “That is where the disappointment comes from. There has been a handful of races where crashes, strategy, and different things just didn’t play out, that part stinks. It is sports, it’s racing and we have to learn from the outcome of this year and whatever happens and not let that happen again in the future.”
The last five years, Johnson was the one in the right place at the right time. Now he’s in the unfamiliar spot of being almost a long shot to win the title. Now it seems that something that seemed so hard to do the last few years is just weeks from happening: dethroning Johnson.
He and his fans knew the day would come but have preferred not to think about it. Reality though, is calling them down to earth. Still the champion for the next three weeks, and with anything possible in this sport Johnson could very well be right back in the hunt after Sunday. But he’s still thinking about the end game and will have to decide how to handle it when it comes.
“We have high expectations for ourselves and so does this room and the fans because of what we have accomplished,” Johnson said. “After you win a championship, you want more and after you win five in a row it just seems like you should be a contender at a minimum. We have a lot of pressure on ourselves and yes, we are going to be disappointed if we are not the champion.”
But Johnson says, he’s been thinking about his team. There are new men going over the wall on his pit crew. They’ve been developing all year. HMS has had pressure on them to provide the best cars with good speed in them. Johnson says it has been a tougher year than they expected from a performance standpoint.
It gives Johnson reason to believe that 2012 will be a good year because he feels they understanding their equipment better. Time will tell if next year comes with Johnson not being the man on top.
“Just like any competitor if it is not your year this year, you learn from the low spots, you praise your crew for the high spots and you move on,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to see the streak end, nor does my team, but if it does, it does and we have to learn from it and go on.”