AVONDALE, Ariz. Even at his career worst, Jimmie Johnson still was better than just about all of the rest.
In and of itself, that likely is a telling reason Johnson has made the Chase for the Sprint Cup in all 10 years of the format’s existence.
With two races left this season, including Sunday’s AdvoCare 500k at Phoenix International Raceway, Johnson again is in good position to end with another series championship.
He has six wins this season – he has never won fewer than five while winning five titles – and two of his victories have come during the Chase, including last weekend at Texas.
The seven-point advantage Johnson holds over Matt Kenseth might not sound like a lot, but history has shown any advantage for Johnson usually is to the detriment of his competitors.
As he stares down a possible sixth title, it seems almost surreal that at one point this season, he had the worst four-race stretch of his career, and it came just before the Chase.
The month-long malaise even worried Johnson’s team owner.
“You think you’re snake-bit,” Rick Hendrick recalled feeling at the time. “I think Jimmie is able to cinch it up, man, when he needs to, and (crew chief Chad Knaus) has always been able to fire his guys up and work harder.
“They sure didn’t give up and they knew they were capable of doing it.”
It’s unlikely any of Johnson’s competitors felt he wouldn’t factor into the championship picture despite losing what once was a 78-point lead. Because of his four wins at the time, he still started the Chase as the second seed, just three points behind No. 1 seed Kenseth.
Following the season’s 26th race at Richmond, Va., which set the Chase field, driver Kyle Busch still believed Johnson and his No.48 team could “flip a switch” and return to top form.
Looking back, it certainly looks as if something changed.
But did it?
The trouble began with a blown engine Aug.18 at Michigan, which left Johnson with a 40th-place finish.
By itself, that wasn’t a big issue and remains his only blown engine this season.
What didn’t play into Johnson’s hands was the schedule. Up next was Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway, which has not been kind to him.
It wasn’t again. Johnson got caught up in a wreck just past halfway in the Aug.24 race and eventually finished 36th without leading a lap.
The team looked for redemption Sept.1 at Atlanta, but this time he was the unwitting victim of a bad restart on Lap 31 that sent him plowing into the rear of Jeff Burton’s car, leaving both cars with extensive damage. That led to a 28th-place finish.
Again the schedule did Johnson no favors. Next up was Richmond, another track where he has had his share of issues.
This time, Johnson missed Friday and Saturday practices for the birth of his second daughter and was forced to start the Sept.7 race from the rear of the field.
He struggled early, got lapped and then was caught speeding on pit road. Johnson eventually had to make a trip to the garage for a battery change, returned to the track and had a blown tire. End result? A 40th-place finish.
“It certainly challenged us mentally,” Johnson said. “We had to remind ourselves the reasons why we had those bad races and the issues behind it.”
The No. 48 team appeared to be limping into the Chase.
Things were never as bad as they looked, however.
‘The speed was there’
Without the rest of the season as context, it was easy to look at Johnson’s four-week disaster and wonder if a another championship was possible.
Those closest to the team, including Hendrick, Johnson and Knaus knew better days were ahead for two reasons – the team had been consistently fast and some of Johnson’s best tracks were among those in the 10-race Chase.
With two races left, Johnson has led 1,984 laps this season – the second-largest total of his career (the most was 2,238 during 2009).
“You go back and look at what happened. We had some things that happened in the races – on a restart you run into the back of one of the other cars and knock the radiator out of it, the engine problem” at Michigan, Hendrick said.
“You know, when you see that, those are things that are going to happen. But the speed was there. The laps led were always there.”
Hendrick never was worried, he said, for another reason.
“Jimmie’s confidence was never down,” he said. “Chad’s confidence was never down. The reason was we could see what was causing the problems and a lot was out of their control, really.”
Now in the Chase, Johnson is as good as ever.
He has been sixth or better in seven of the eight races and his worst finish was 13th at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.
The Johnson battling toe-to-toe with Kenseth in these final weeks is the same team that once built a 78-point lead.
“I’m just not going to put my guard down,” Johnson said. “We need to go into Phoenix, race well. We finished second there in the spring, but that doesn’t guarantee us anything.”
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