Jimmie Time: Johnson Fast When He Needs To Be
By Mike Harris | Senior Writer
LOUDON, N.H. – Jimmie Johnson’s mini-slump is over.
After finishing the NASCAR Sprint Cup regular season with four straight clunkers – 40, 36, 28, 40 – the five time series champion is back in the groove with a fifth-place finish in the opening event of the 10-race Chase for the championship.
Going into the Michigan race in mid-August, Johnson had not finished worse than 28th this season. In the first 22 races of the 2013 season, the Hendrick Motorsports driver had racked up 15 top-10 finishes, including four wins.
Then came the stretch that had the Jimmie haters salivating. Maybe this would be the year that the guy who always rises to the occasion in the postseason, winning 22 of the 91 Chase events since the playoffs began in 2004, would lose his magic touch.
He hasn’t visited Victory Lane since July at Daytona, but the man who has won 64 Cup races in his career, is not concerned by the recent victory drought.
“When you get to the Chase, at least (from) my focal point, you can’t look back on the regular season,’’ Johnson said Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where he will start from the 11th position in Sunday’s Sylvania 300.
“It doesn’t matter if you dominated it or if you’ve been behind. It’s a 10-race stretch of its own. With that in mind, I haven’t won in a week. I finished fifth and had a shot at a win last week (at Chicagoland Speedway). So that’s how you have to look at it, honestly.’’
Johnson’s mindset has turned to Chase mode, meaning he’s forgotten about those recent problems and all he’s thinking about are the opportunities ahead to win races and another championship, his first since 2010.
“I know that Dover, Martinsville, our performance on the plate tracks this year, and on the 1.5-mile (tracks) in general, I know there are good opportunities for us ahead,’’ he said. “So, blinders on. Focus on the No. 48. Focus on what we need to do and not let the outside opinions or what goes on be a distraction for us.
“We need to run our best 10 (races),’’ Johnson added. “I honestly feel if we put together our best 10 races, we’ll be in contention for the championship.’’
Ryan Newman, NASCAR’s longtime qualifying ace, will start from the pole Sunday after winning the 51st pole of his career. Kasey Kahne and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, two of Johnson’s Hendrick teammates, will start second and third.
Matt Kenseth, who leads runner-up Kyle Busch by eight points in the Chase standings and is 11 ahead of Johnson, will start ninth. Busch qualified 12th.
The fourth Hendrick entry, also among the 13 drivers in the Chase is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had a rough day at the Chicago track. A blown engine relegated him to a 35th-place finish and dropped the fan favorite a daunting 53 points behind Kenseth.
Johnson said Earnhardt can’t give up hope.
“That’s not the way you want to start the Chase,’’ he said. “Last year, I had two bad races … and still had a chance going into (the finale at) Homestead. So I think there is still a chance for them.
“Unfortunately, they’re losing control. And that’s what no one wants to have happen. As you have poor finishes or bad finishes or whatever the cause, you lose control. But we’ll see. In 10 races anything can happen.’’
The wild card in the Chase, the always scary race at Talladega, is still out there ahead of the drivers.
“I think once you get through Talladega the championship picture becomes more clear,’’ Johnson noted. “(If you had a bad start) it’s not time to panic, yet.’’
On the other hand, with the Chase start Johnson had a Chicagoland, it might be time for the competition to start worrying.
– Mike Harris can be reached at email@example.com Comments