The last time Jimmie Johnson won the Sprint Cup championship was three years ago. Considering that his 2010 title was his fifth in a row, it’s impossible to deny that it felt odd seeing the 2011 and 2012 trophies go to Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski, respectively. He was in the hunt in both of those years, but the storylines went to others while he quietly settled into the top five and watched the spoils go to different drivers.
This year, the dude is back.
After an eighth place finish Sunday at Watkins Glen, Johnson became the first (and so far, only) driver to officially clinch a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR’s 10-race version of the playoffs at the end of the season. He sits on top of the standings, an astounding 75 points ahead of second place, Clint Bowyer. For perspective, consider this: Every position on the race track in the NASCAR world counts for one point (43 points for first, 42 for second, etc.), so Johnson’s lead in the points is equivalent to nearly two full races. He could sit out this Sunday’s event in Michigan and still hold on to the lead. The only time he hasn’t been on top in 2013 were at the end of the fourth and fifth races of the season. He’s got four wins this year, tied for the most of any driver: A sweep at Daytona in the Daytona 500 and Coke Zero 400, a dominating performance in the spring race at Pocono, and a runaway victory earlier this year at Martinsville. In short, Johnson is getting shit done.
But, here’s the scary part: the team has been far from perfect. They’ve made mistakes. They’ve given away wins. And yet, they continue to lead the points by a mile and are poised to start the Chase in the first seed.
There are four races that Johnson, for all intents and purposes, gave away the win, and those four point to the problems within the #48 crew that, if fixed, put them in another league compared to the rest of the competition. For Johnson as a driver, the main problem has been restarts. At Dover, Johnson jumped a late restart and was penalized, relegating him to a 17th place finish. Likewise, later at Kentucky, he played things too cautiously and ended up spinning as the field stormed around him, although he’d still finish ninth. Johnson was vocal about both races, bordering on incessant whining when trying to tell his side of the story, but the fact remains that he didn’t play by NASCAR’s rules and was hurt by it. He’s settled in more lately, but the issues with restarts clearly rattled Johnson’s cage, and if the pressure once again affects him in the Chase, he could be in trouble.
At Indy, the pit crew gave away the win with a long stop on the final green flag pit stop of the race, allowing Ryan Newman to sneak by and grab the victory while Johnson ran runner up. The crew’s been mostly flawless in 2013, so one misstep doesn’t spell impending doom, but if it happens when the championship’s on the line, it won’t be so forgiveable. The fourth race Johnson missed a win at was the second race of the year at Pocono last week. He dominated the early stages, much like he did en route to a victory at the first Pocono event of 2013, until a blown right front tire sent him into the wall. But, the silver lining, which there’s been a lot of for Johnson this year, is that the crew worked their asses off to repair the car and he somehow still brought home 13th.
Even the races he should have won still turned in to top 15 finishes.
He still has the four victories under his belt, and he’s still in prime position to experiment with setups and other speed grabs until the Chase starts in five weeks at Chicago. Johnson is showing as much, if not more, drive than he did in his first five championship runs as he chases what he’s affectionately titled his attempt at a “six pack.” He talks about how the 48 bunch wins as a team and loses as a team, choosing not to get upset when the crew lost him the race at Indy. He understands that his winning ways have ruffled the feathers of many and has since created a #BlameJJ hashtag on Twitter to poke fun at his haters. In fact, aside from the rise it created with all of this restart business, Johnson’s as cool, calm and collected as he’s ever been. And when he’s allowed to quietly go about his business and rattle off top 10s every week, sprinkled with a few wins, he’s more dangerous than any driver on the track.
Anything can happen in NASCAR, and that’s what makes it so great, but right now, nobody is in remotely the same league, and if that doesn’t change quickly, he’ll handily win the 2013 championship without breaking a sweat.