Jimmie Johnson's fellow NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers should be afraid. Very afraid.
Now that Johnson finally has his first win of 2014, reasons abound for his fellow competitors to fear the 48 car.
That would be the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet that Johnson already has driven to six Cup championships. A seventh would tie him with NASCAR legends and Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty for the most all-time.
That it took Johnson one-third of the 36-race season to earn his first victory is of no concern to the driver and his masterful crew chief, Chad Knaus. All they see in front of them now are endless possibilities and a clear path to that historic seventh title.
"I promise you, all the hype and all the concern and worry, that was elsewhere. It wasn't in my head," Johnson told the Sporting News after winning the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway to break a 13-race winless streak dating back to last season.
So his head is right. So is his focus.
That's not to say Six Time now is a lock to win championship No. 7 and earn a new nickname this year. But there are a whole bunch of reasons why it's more likely than ever that he will at least contend until the end for it.
For starters, it was beginning to seem, at least to outsiders, that Johnson and Knaus weren't quite on the same page this year.
In fact, as recently as two weekends ago, when the No. 48 struggled during the Sprint All-Star Race, it appeared that frustration and tension between the two were beginning to mount. Then Johnson went out and won the pole for the Coca-Cola 600, led a race-high 164 laps and waltzed into Victory Lane.
And whatever frustration and tension there may have been between the Dynamic Duo quickly dissipated into the crisp Charlotte nighttime air.
Plus, Hendrick Motorsports is just getting warmed up.
It wasn't just Johnson who got off to a slow start as far as winning races. After Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the season-opening Daytona 500 for Hendrick Motorsports, the traditionally stout organization went more than two months before winning again when Jeff Gordon took the checkered flag at Kansas. Johnson made it two in a row for Hendrick at Charlotte, meaning the boys have figured out some things back at the shop.
Despite not winning any of the first 11 races, Johnson now has led a total 691 laps on the season. Only Kevin Harvick with 783 has led more. So perhaps Johnson, Knaus and the entire Hendrick organization weren't ever really that far off their usual game.
Secondly, once Johnson wins a race, he historically gets on a roll.
In six of the last eight seasons after Johnson won his first race of the year, it took him seven races or fewer to earn his next win. He won championships in five of those six seasons. Overall, out of those eight seasons, there were five in which it took him five races or fewer to win his second race after capturing the first. Twice he won two of the next three races, and once his first win ignited a hot streak in which he won four of eight races overall.
The Sprint Cup Series now travels to Dover, where Johnson has won eight times—more than anyone else in history. Richard Petty and another Hall of Famer in Bobby Allison are next on the all-time list at the track with seven wins apiece.
Finally, no one has ever been better in the Chase, the 10 races at the end of the season that determine the season's champion. Of course, there is a new elimination format this year—but that might actually end up working in Johnson's favor. Plus, now he and Knaus have the remaining 14 races in the regular season to prepare for the Chase without worrying about qualifying for it.
There is one more fear factor to consider concerning Johnson.
Six Time doesn't act like an athlete pushing 40 years of age. (He'll turn 39 this September.)
Johnson won the 35-39 age group in a triathlon in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, just hours before heading to Charlotte Motor Speedway to compete in the recent Sprint All-Star Race. This is of significance because it offers evidence that, once again, Johnson will not wilt late in races during the hot summer months like some of his fellow competitors.
So the most impressive thing he's done lately, outside of winning the Coca-Cola 600, is how he balanced being a triathlete, a father and a race car driver on the day of the Sprint All-Star Race. He told The Associated Press (via Fox News) that he expected to get a little rest when he arrived home after the triathlon and before he had to head to the track for the race.
His wife, Chandra, had other plans for him.
"I walked into (my wife) saying, 'It's been a frustrating morning, here you go.' So I got the two kids and got in the pool," Johnson said, via The Associated Press' report. "I took a shower in my swimming pool."
A few hours later, he was wheeling his No. 48 Chevy around Charlotte Motor Speedway at 200 miles per hour. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., drove the Superman car in the Coca-Cola 600—but it was Johnson who was displaying true superpowers a week earlier. Then he won NASCAR's longest race to put an exclamation point on it.
All in all, it could add up to a frightening summer for the rest of the mere mortals flying around the Sprint Cup circuit.
Joe Menzer has written two books about NASCAR and now writes about it and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.
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