How Worried Should Jimmie Johnson Be About Subpar Summer Performances?

Jerry BonkowskiFeatured ColumnistAugust 15, 2014

Jerry Markland/Getty Images

The numbers are striking.

In the last five races, Jimmie Johnson has earned finishes of 42nd place (Daytona and Loudon), 39th (Pocono) and 28th (Watkins Glen).

The only decent finish he's had in that five-race streak was 14th in the Brickyard 400, which Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon won for the fifth time in his career to break a tie he previously had with Johnson.

Has Johnson's success and luck, the kind that has carried him to six Sprint Cup championships in the last eight seasons, gone to hell in a hand basket?

Is Johnson's reign as the most elite and successful driver of the last decade over?

Has he simply forgotten how to drive?

One word answers all of those questions: Hardly.

Sure, Johnson is in a slump that has seen him drop from second to seventh place. But this is Jimmie Johnson we're talking about.

If he's going to have a slump, what better time to do it than in the middle of the season, rather than in the upcoming Chase for the Sprint Cup.

One other thing to point out is that in his three worst finishes, he has wrecked out in a crash each time.

Should Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus be worried? Not at all.

Their No. 48 team is safely in the Chase. In fact, if they manage to earn one more win in the remaining four races before the Chase, Johnson could enter the expanded 16-driver field as the top seed (a spot that points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. currently holds).

What's more, even though this year's Chase format has been expanded from 12 to 16 drivers, and the 10 races include three cutoff rounds in which the four lowest-ranked drivers after the third, sixth and ninth races will be eliminated from further advancement, the Chase is also where Johnson and Knaus are unquestionably at their best.

Now, if Johnson doesn't break his recent slump in the next couple of races—this Sunday at Michigan (he won there in June) and next Saturday night at Bristol—then he and his fans might have something to worry about. But for now, it remains business as usual for the No. 48 team. The team has been in several slumps over the years, including during most of its six championship runs.

For whatever reason, Johnson and Knaus seem to have a knack at having most of those bad races and slumps at what can be considered the "right" time, during the 26-race regular season, before putting on their best game faces for the final 10 races.

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

There's added incentive for Johnson and Knaus in this first season of the new, expanded Chase format. The duo is going for its seventh Sprint Cup championship in 2014. If successful, Johnson will tie NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for the most individual championships won by a driver (seven).

At the same time, this could also be the most challenging Chase Johnson has ever gone through:

* Earnhardt is enjoying perhaps the best season of his career. Without question, he's a legitimate championship contender.

* Gordon has had a resurgence that could lead him to his fifth Cup championship and prevent Johnson from earning No. 7.

* Brad Keselowski, who won the 2012 Sprint Cup championship, only to fail to make the Chase and defend his title last season, appears to be on a mission to earn a second crown in three seasons.

* Keselowski's Penske Racing teammate, Joey Logano, is also enjoying the best season of his young Sprint Cup career.

Add that all together, plus the rest of the drivers who make the Chase, and Johnson could very well be in for the fight of his career.

Then again, a good fight is something he thrives upon.


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