Why Jimmie Johnson Won't Start Turning Heads Until the 2014 Chase

Bob MargolisContributor IIMarch 20, 2014

Chad Knaus (l) and Jimie Johnson
Chad Knaus (l) and Jimie JohnsonTerry Renna/Associated Press

Once again, Bristol’s concrete surface was not kind to Jimmie Johnson.

Race No. 4 on the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule was less than memorable for the No. 48 Lowe’s team. But it’s doubtful that Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the team, especially the tire specialist, are losing any sleep over another miserable Bristol weekend.

It’s been a slow start this year for Johnson’s team.

Would Johnson and Co. like to have started off the season with a repeat win at Daytona? Sure, they would have. Would they like to have one of those cool new "winner" decals by now that would take some of the pressure off of making the Chase? Absolutely.

The truth is, though, they’ve just not given the whole idea much thought, according to Johnson.

“No, I haven’t put much thought into it,” Johnson told the media at Bristol last weekend before the race. “The main reason is 16 transfer, and it’s pretty rare that we have 16 different winners in the course of a season.  So points still have a pretty big impact on where you are at.”

Spoken just like a driver who was, at the time, sitting confidently third in points. Then came the freak situation with a tire that came apart in the early goings, sending him onto pit road. At a track like Bristol, green flag laps on pit road will cost you dearly. Johnson ended up multiple laps down to the race leaders, finishing the race 19th. When his day ended, he had dropped two places in points—to fifth. 

This, the old-timers like to say, is the reason why they run the races. It’s because you can be on top of the world one race and then have the kind of day that Jimmie Johnson had the next race.

Mr. Six-Time has had more than his share of “that” kind of day early in the season.

“I feel like Vegas we had a shot to win,” Johnson added. “Midway through the race, the balance of the car changed and we found something wrong with the car that was pretty rare and unique for us. So we know where our speed went. And I feel like the (Daytona) 500 we had a shot to win. So we have had two chances to win and have had a bunch of top-six finishes.  

“There is nothing to be concerned about yet—one, because the year is early, and two, I feel like at least one or two positions will go in via points.

Did we hear that correctly? Johnson’s already been thinking about getting into the Chase on points? Odds are he’ll not have to go that route to get into NASCAR’s Sweet 16, but that just shows you how he’s thinking.

It’s likely that Johnson, Knaus and the entire No. 48 squad are just as happy running under the radar for now, because they are, after all, the classic example of a playoff team.

Yes, a playoff team. We all know who they are.

The Detroit Red Wings, the Miami Heat, the New York Yankees, the Duke Blue Devils and the Green Bay Packers—all championship winners that know how to work the system. They rarely will admit that that is what they do, but we all know it is exactly what they do. Some teams play just well enough to get into the club. The postseason club. Then, the gloves come off, their heads go down and they kick ass.

Is there any question that Jimmie Johnson’s team belongs on a list of playoff teams? For the last decade in NASCAR, nobody’s done the last 10 races on the schedule, especially after a somewhat sketchy regular season, better than the No. 48 team.

Sadly, this team’s dominance does not sit well with some NASCAR fans. Johnson has had to endure his share of fan boos lately. The whole team hears them. So when it's called a "playoff team" (a term the team itself prefers not to use), it only adds to the frustration. The 48 crew will tell you that they come to the track week in and week out believing they can win, whether it's the regular season or the Chase. 

The truth is, Johnson confidently (and literally) drives circles around the competition when it is Chase time.

His confidence not only drives the car, it drives the team. And a large part of his confidence comes from the top, from Knaus, whose leadership of this very successful group over the last decade has taught them not to be afraid of change. 

“I think that's one thing that has helped this team,” Knaus told the media last fall after winning his sixth title with Johnson at the wheel. “We've been very fortunate that a lot of people on the 48 have moved on to bigger and better. That allows us to bring in new, fresh people. When you're able to bring in new, fresh people into a proven commodity, you get some spice, you get some life.”

And then there’s Johnson, a six-time champion who doesn’t just sit behind the wheel, turn left for three-and-a-half hours and then look pretty in the post-race interviews

“Jimmie is good,” added Knaus. “He does a good job of understanding the car. He understands what the car's doing. He can feel the car. He can be one with the car. I know that sounds foolish, it sounds weird.  But, seriously, go to a surfer and ask him about his surfboard. Go to a snowboarder and ask him about his snowboard. Go to a skier, ask him about his skis.”

Come on, how many other crew chiefs talk about their driver like that?

This team has depth. It has strong players in every position, not just trackside but back at the shop. It’s why Johnson and Co. have dominated the last decade in NASCAR and will likely be a part of the championship scenario for the foreseeable future.

“You know, it's such a team sport, and I think that gets overlooked at times,” said Johnson. “Certainly, people just think of the driver and the driver's impact. Next in line would be the crew chief. 

“I really put a lot of our success into the depth we have, the systems we have at Hendrick Motorsports, the support we have behind the scenes.  That really lets the race day crew, the guys that go there each and every weekend (and are) seen on TV, to do their jobs and handle the issues at hand.”

Do you think Johnson’s start to the 2014 season is keeping him up at night?

Don’t bet on it. He figures he’ll be around when it counts.