Jimmie Johnson has won five consecutive championships playing a sport in which everyone drives the exact same car. Five. To win five consecutive championships in any sport is an historic feat. To do it in a sport in which talented drivers regularly fall prey to freak collisions and uncertain fuel calculations is downright heroic. Johnson’s string of dominance rivals that of any athlete in modern sports history. More importantly for Hendrick Motorsports and the 48 team, it’s why only a fool would count him out of this year’s Chase.
Admittedly, the Chase’s first two races haven’t unfolded as Johnson planned. Fuel problems pushed Johnson back to 10th at Chicagoland in the opening contest of NASCAR’s playoffs. Last week at Loudon, the Lowe’s car never got going and ended with a disappointing 18th. Johnson hasn’t won since Talladega and now sits a full 29 points back of Chase leader Tony Stewart. He ranks 10th in the Chase’s 12-driver field — the lowest he’s sat in the Chase field over his entire career. A series of tense radio conversations between Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus in New Hampshire punctuated the team’s frustration. Indeed, plenty of NASCAR analysts have written him out of the Sprint Cup picture entirely.
I’m not one of them. Johnson still has reason to be hopeful, and it starts with the remaining tracks: the Chase is about to drive right into Johnson’s comfort zone. JJ has an astonishing 26 combined career victories at the 8 remaining courses. He’s racked up 94 top-10 finishes in 129 combined starts. The Chase rolls into Dover this week, where Johnson has taken home the checkered flag on six different occasions. He’s won the race three times in his last five visits, including a victory last year. Needless to say, the 48 team will be playing on home turf until the Cup is handed out at Homestead.
Johnson’s team also doesn’t sit as far back as one might think. Tony Stewart and the 14 car are red-hot and enjoy a full 29-point cushion. Over eight races, however, that lead could quickly disappear. More importantly for Johnson, the field is heavily backloaded. The 48 sits only 6 points back of the fifth-place driver (Jeff Gordon, who is 23 points behind Stewart). One strong finish could vault him back into the top five. After that, a single bad race from Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Chase rookie Brad Keselowski could even things up. NASCAR fans have a tendency to overreact after the first legs of the playoffs. Johnson and the 48 team know better.
The Lowe’s team isn’t running as cold as it seems. While they haven’t won since Talladega, they did manage seven top-10 finishes (including six top-five finishes) in the season’s final nine races. The 10th-place finish at Chicagoland is also somewhat misleading. The 48 car led for 39 laps before backing off over fuel concerns. Johnson was running third at the start of the final lap, only to run out of gas and coast to a 10th-place finish. This unlucky finish prompted Hendrick Motorsports to quip that “He ran out of gas and still finished 10th! If that’s his bad day, everybody else is in trouble.”
More than anything, however, Johnson’s unmatched experience gives cause for optimism. His track record of success suggests that he knows how to win. Johnson has won the Chase five times. The contest has only been held seven times. He has 19 Chase wins on nine different tracks. No other driver has more than eight Chase wins. More importantly, his track record of comebacks suggests that he knows how to make up ground. In 2006, Johnson sat eighth (156 points back in the old format) after four races, only to finish second, first, second, second, second and ninth en route to his first Sprint Cup. The following year, Johnson sat 68 points behind Jeff Gordon after five races but managed win four straight en route to his first repeat championship. In 2008, Johnson saw Greg Biffle win the first two Chase races in Stewart-esque fashion, but screamed back over the final 8 races to take the Cup. Last year, Johnson began the Chase with a 25th-place finish at Loudon and managed to bounce back with nine straight top-10 finishes for his fifth consecutive championship. Not only is Johnson the most dominant front-runner in Sprint Cup history, he also knows how to come from behind.
The path to a sixth consecutive title won’t be easy. The smart money is certainly on the field. That said, only a fool would count the 48 car out after only two races. His experience, more than anything, makes Jimmie Johnson a perpetual threat. As Johnson said after his disappointing finish last week, “My optimism is still high. These first two races did not start as we had hoped that they would, but eight to go, there’s still a lot that can happen. Past experience really helps with the mental side of it.”
John Ettinger is a senior in Saybrook College.