Everyone knew the day was coming, but now that it’s here it’s hard to believe.
Over the last four years Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 team were NASCAR’s Superman. They’ve done everything everyone thought they could never do by winning four straight championships. They proved everyone wrong by never seeming to struggle or make mistakes while having things always go their way.
The result was much hate and criticism for doing their jobs and being good at it.
Every Sunday fans and media alike tried to remind themselves that the day would come when Johnson wouldn’t be on top of the world.
That day has come, and not surprising, it’s been the talk of the NASCAR world with everything from karma, to hexing, to the spoiler being the problem.
The start of the 2010 season didn’t look good for non-48 fans. It was much of what was seen the last four years when Johnson and company picked up right where they left off—winning three races early on and leading the points.
Immediately the story every week was “Oh no not again,” and “Johnson’s domination is killing NASCAR.”
Suddenly the unthinkable happened. The Lowe’s team suffered three finishes of 31st or worst in three of the last five races, which included wrecks at Talladega, Darlington, and Charlotte. He also wrecked in the non-points event at Charlotte.
Johnson quickly went from leading the points to sitting in seventh heading into Pocono. With other drivers taking advantage of Johnson’s downfall, others wondered what changed for him and seemed set on one conclusion.
After winning at Bristol in March, NASCAR made a change to the Sprint Cup Series car starting the following week at Martinsville by bringing back the spoiler. In that race Johnson never led a lap and finished ninth, which raised eyebrows because it’s a track that he’s won six times.
The next eight races (not including the All-Star event) was more of the same, as more and more became convinced it was the spoiler that was spoiling Johnson’s run at title No. 5.
“I know there is a lot made up about performance and the fact that there could be a change between the spoiler and the wing,” Johnson said. “I guess it is different so there is an opportunity for that to be part of it.”
For all those hoping there is, “I just, in my heart, cannot believe that,” Johnson said. “It just does not feel any different when I’m in the car.”
If it’s not the spoiler that has thrown the team for a loop, then it has to be that the competition has caught up to the champions. A few weeks ago even Hendrick Motorsports team owner Rick Hendrick said Joe Gibbs Racing had not only caught, but had passed his company.
It could be true, JGR has won six races since Johnson’s last at Bristol (Johnson has won all of the HMS races this year), and Hamlin currently leads all drivers in bonus points when the Chase starts. Then there’s Richard Childress Racing, with driver Kevin Harvick atop the point standings.
It didn’t help the HMS case when Johnson and teammate Jeff Gordon started to get together at Texas and Talladega, resulting in a war of words. Gordon had been in contention for wins but was letting them slip through his fingers when Johnson came along and started racing Gordon too hard for his liking.
At Talladega Johnson admitted that it was his mistake—he said he was trying to help Gordon—when coming down in front of him and later Gordon being in a wreck.
Definitely has to be the competition, karma of being so good, and his teammate getting in his head that’s the problem.
Or is it the performance? Many want to believe that the 48 have finally lost their edge. Talk about the team not being able to build great race cars anymore resulting in them finally getting beat. The only problem with that theory is when looking back at those eight races since the spoiler returned, Johnson and company have never been too far off the grid.
Ninth at Martinsville, third at Phoenix, second at Texas, crash at Talladega, 10th at Richmond, crash at Darlington, dominated Dover before finishing 16th, crash at Charlotte, and fifth at Pocono this past weekend.
Other drivers might not think that’s struggling but because the champ is not setting the world on fire like so many are used to seeing, it seems the end as come.
“We’re doing fine,” Johnson said. “You read the headlines and it’s like the No. 48 team is shutting down. But in our world, yeah, it hasn’t been the best for us, but we look at Dover and accelerated faster than we thought based on our calculations.”
At Dover, Johnson led 225 of 400 laps before he was caught speeding on his last pit stop, resulting in the 16th place finish. The following week he dominated the first three segments of the Sprint All-Star race before spinning himself out in the fourth.
Performance is definitely not an issue here, bring up the next theory and the most logical one.
“I’ve always had that good rhythm of taking that tightrope, and you step over it from time to time,” he said. “Lately I’ve been stepping on the wrong side of that line and I need to bring it back to touch and make sure that we finish where we should if we don’t have a car that can win the race, fine. We’ll just take what we can get.”
Wait, say it isn’t so: Jimmie Johnson human?
Now that he’s figured it out and knows that he personally needs to change what he’s been doing, it’s the first step in returning to winning form. That means his recent slide through the standings is over, much to the dismay of those hoping he would slide right out of the Chase.
Understanding that sometimes it’s better to just get what he can out of the car on any given day means going back to what makes him successful and what drives everyone crazy: winning and running up front. Take Pocono as the perfect example, when he qualified 25th at the triangle, but by day’s end he was fifth.
“I just feel that from my own experience here the last few weeks I’ve been trying too hard,” Johnson said on Friday. “I’ve been trying to have the car on the loose side and pushing hard to make sure that the car didn’t get tight on me. I do not like a tight race car and I’ve probably compromised the comfort of the car and how to drive a car for 600 miles by pushing the envelope and by attacking really hard as my standpoint as a driver.”
He continued, “I think I’m in a place where I need to slow down to go fast. We’ve been competitive. We won early. We haven't been maybe the dominant car or the fastest car week in and week out, but we've been a Top-Five car. And I think I've been trying to bridge that gap and trying to make the difference up on my own and I need to stop doing that.
“I just need to focus on getting what I can on that given day. Take that finish and build on that performance so that Chad (Knaus) and our engineers can continue to make the cars better and better instead of me stepping over the line and making a mistake and costing us.”
Everyone knew the day was coming. Ironically instead of enjoying a winless 48 team, how quickly the tune has changed from wanting Johnson to stop winning to daily articles asking what the problem is and how they’re going to fix it.
And yet it shouldn't be so shocking. It’s impossible to dominate year after year, to stay ahead of the competition, a place that Johnson seemed to be. While many will say that this is the end of the Jimmie Johnson era, fortunately for his team and fans the performance is there and they’ve been in the thick of things for wins.
But they just need to get past the experimenting phase Johnson decided to play with in learning where the edge was.
In today’s NASCAR it’s better to work out the bugs now and be ready for the Chase in September; they don’t have to worry about getting too far behind in the championship battle at this time.
So, no matter how much things seem off the beaten path, as long as he stays in the Top 12 in points, everyone knows what the No. 48 Lowe’s team led by Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson can do over the final 10 races.