Clinton, South Carolina, Friday, April 13, 2018, 2:27 p.m.
Is this the week the mystery of Jimmie Johnson subsides? The dominant driver of his generation hasn’t won in 30 races. He’s won 83 Cup races and seven championships, but his best finish this year is ninth.
He’s 42. He won the record-tying seventh title just two years ago. Are his skills starting to fade? Is the sport starting to pass Hendrick Motorsports by? Is the new Chevrolet Camaro, which has won only one of the season’s seven races to date, at a disadvantage?
Bristol Motor Speedway is a good place for Johnson’s troubles to end. He won the Food City 500 last year. Aerodynamics makes less difference on a short track. On the other hand, Johnson has only won at Bristol twice ever. The only current tracks where he has never won are Chicagoland, Kentucky and Watkins Glen.
Johnson is in phenomenal shape. He reportedly rode 100 mountainous miles on a bicycle recently, but cycling won’t make him better in race cars. He’ll just feel better when he’s in them.
“This race track is one of my favorite ones to come to. It’s my favorite race track to watch a race,” Johnson said on Friday. “I’ve joked here in the past that I love to watch a race here and don’t necessarily enjoy driving in a race here. There isn’t another track in the country like this place to get used to it.
“Some guys have taken to it really quickly. For me, it’s taken some time, and it’s been a crazy journey along the way.”
Richard Petty won his seventh championship in 1979. Dale Earnhardt’s was in 1994. Both spent a long time chasing an eighth. Earnhardt pursued it for the rest of his life.
The window of opportunity varies in time from one driver to another, but eventually it closes. If Johnson’s skills are leveling off, he hasn’t noticed.
“We have high expectations for ourselves, first and foremost,” he said, “and we think that we should be in a position to win races every year and compete for race wins each weekend, so I think, within that, there are a lot of fair questions being asked. I think there is overreaction by fans and media on that last upper percentile of it, especially all the kind and wonderful people on social media and the things that they have to say. … There are small increments from good to great, and right now, we’ve just been in that good category. We need to be great. We want to be great.”
It seems absurd that one of the NASCAR all-time greats is feeling pressure. What does Johnson have to prove? Nothing in one sense, but every driver has to prove himself in another whenever he climbs into the car, no matter how short the ride or long the past.
“By no means am I content with where I’m at and where this team is at in our performances, “Johnson said. “We can’t work any harder. Manufacturer. Driver. Crew Chief. Team. Organization. We can’t. We are literally working around the clock and doing anything and everything we can. So, at some point you have to say, we’re all in. We just need time. We’ll get there. We need more from everywhere right now is our approach. There’s not just a silver bullet that’s like okay, boom, if it’s this, then everything would be fine. It’s not that.”
There’s one more factor. For the first time, Johnson’s team doesn’t have sponsorship next year. He has been identified, almost exclusively, with Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouses for his entire Cup career. Is Lowe’s moving on because its star is fading? That’s impossible to say because, even if it’s true, no one is going to admit it. Lowe’s may just believe it’s time to move on and that the benefit it derives from Johnson and NASCAR has run its course.
No matter the historic greatness of Johnson’s career, memories are short. At the moment, he is no better than his last 30 races. The man who has won everything has to win some more.
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