Jun 16, 2014, 12:24 PM EST
The free-for-all has given way to familiarity.
The first seven races of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series produced seven different winners, and by Memorial Day weekend, that number had grown to nine.
Missing among those winners was Jimmie Johnson, the six-time and defending Sprint Cup champion.
But while we fretted over if and when he would get on the board in 2014, Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team stayed calm.
Constantly maintaining that he felt no pressure to win, Johnson may have come off like a broken record to some in the early months of the season.
But he knew that his team would figure out the new rules package. He knew that he’d return to form. And in hindsight, we all knew that too.
Now he’s rattled off three wins in the last four Sprint Cup points races, taking over the top seed on the current Chase grid. The Memorial Day weekend win at Charlotte in the Coca-Cola 600 broke open the dam, and has led to his ninth career Dover triumph and now, his first-ever victory at the Michigan International Speedway.
No doubt this familiarity will breed some contempt among the NASCAR fan base who are sick of all things Johnson after years of his dominance of the sport.
But no matter. The 48 team doesn’t care. They’re NASCAR’s answer to the San Antonio Spurs (and yes, I know I’m not the only writer to make that comparison).
They just want to win, they’d prefer to do it with class, and they’ve been together long enough to know success and failure – and that the opinions of the outside world don’t really matter.
“We’ve lost races together. We’ve lost championships together. And certainly we’ve had success,” Johnson said Sunday. “But 69 wins and six championships out of 13 years of racing is a pretty small percentage.
“Some of the losses you have are — you got what you could that day and you went on, but a lot of those losses in there sting, and I think experience through those moments make us stronger and better.
“Everybody knows about 2005 and the milk and cookies meeting that Rick had with us. I think from that moment on, we were able to be more comfortable, oddly enough, in our own skin, and as a part of Team 48. Nobody is going anywhere. We’re in this thing together, and we are Team 48.”
In such situations, you build up a lot of trust. It’s that trust that allowed Johnson to sense what crew chief Chad Knaus had up his sleeve heading into what proved to be their final stop with 35 laps remaining.
“When he pulled me to pit lane and the gap that I had over the second spot at that time, I knew that four [tires] would be the call,” said Johnson, who was leading at the time.
“You may as well put four on if you’ve got time for it. He made that call and got out on the track…Just going off the tone of his voice and what he was asking me to do with the car, and he kept asking me to save my tires in case there was a caution. I knew we were good on fuel, so that gave me a lot of optimism.
“And then honestly, once we had our four tires on and fuel in our car, if the caution came out, I still think we were golden. We had enough [fuel] to go the distance whereas everybody else was short.”
But Johnson didn’t have to worry about a caution. The race stayed green for those final 35 laps, and as car after car pitted, Johnson kept moving forward until he finally reclaimed the lead with nine laps left.
Of course, Johnson’s been known to have on-track problems ruin his day at Michigan, so it wasn’t signed, sealed, and delivered at that point. But this time, the car held up and it was his day at last in the Irish Hills.
However, even though Johnson and the 48 team have overcome their early-season performance issues, Knaus believes that there’s still some tightening up to do.
“The fact of the matter is I think we’ve got to be a little bit better,” he said. “Last week, [Hendrick Motorsports] were a whisker away from losing that one. This weekend, maybe we were one pit call away from not winning this one.
“We’ve got to continue to improve our product so by the time we get to the Chase, we’re where we need to be.”
Funny…It sure looks like they’re at that point right now, doesn’t it?
Dec 22, 2014, 1:00 PM EST
Ambrose narrowly missed clinching a Chase berth after his epic battle at the Glen with A.J. Allmendinger.
Dec 22, 2014, 12:30 PM EST
A quick roundup of who’s where at the moment in Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and USF2000.
Dec 22, 2014, 11:19 AM EST
IMSA’s Scot Elkins joins MRTI as race director.
Dec 22, 2014, 11:00 AM EST
The New Year’s Eve IndyCar is revealed.
Dec 22, 2014, 10:15 AM EST
In interview, Carl Edwards sets some high goals for himself in first year with JGR.
Dec 22, 2014, 9:29 AM EST
Bullins up to the Cup level as crew chief of Blaney’s No. 21.
Dec 21, 2014, 8:00 PM EST
Junior speaks highly, already, of new crew chief Greg Ives.
Dec 21, 2014, 6:30 PM EST
Ex-Sauber driver Adrian Sutil calls out F1 pay-driver situation, although it could just be a case of sour grapes.
Dec 21, 2014, 5:30 PM EST
A number of tweaks are coming for the global sports car racing series.
Dec 21, 2014, 4:58 PM EST
Going back to his dirt track roots, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished eighth in the fifth annual Great Clips Battle at the Center in DuQuoin, Ill., on Saturday.
Dec 21, 2014, 4:00 PM EST
The XFINITY Series driver for Richard Childress Racing marries girlfriend Haley Carey.
UPDATED — Highway to Hell(cat): Owner wrecks 707-hp Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat one hour after buying it
Dec 21, 2014, 2:54 PM EST
With just 40 less horsepower than a 2015 Sprint Cup car, the new Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat is VERY powerful. One new Hellcat owner, who bought it just one hour earlier, found out the hard way about all that power.
Dec 21, 2014, 2:30 PM EST
The Outlaw takes on the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in the same day.
Dec 21, 2014, 1:00 PM EST
Vickers made his full-time return to Sprint Cup action in 2014, which in itself was a victory.
Dec 21, 2014, 12:26 PM EST
Paul Menard had a decent season at times in 2014, but fell short of making the Chase in the final qualifying race.
Dec 20, 2014, 11:42 PM EST
New York State’s Empire Racing took the three fastest spots as ARCA completed a two-day open test at Daytona International Speedway.
Dec 20, 2014, 9:11 PM EST
See NHRA great John Force like you’ve never seen him in this video, shot mainly through the eyes of his grandsons Jacob and Noah.
Dec 20, 2014, 8:16 PM EST
Dr. Dick Berggren will receive yet another prestigious honor in his career. He’ll be inducted into the Maine Motorsports Hall of Fame in April 2015.
Dec 20, 2014, 7:00 PM EST
The staff at New Hampshire Motor Speedway got into the holiday spirit, caroling with a unique NASCAR twist in a newly-released video.
Dec 20, 2014, 6:29 PM EST
Matt Henderson, Henderson Motorsports, and local businesses deliver presents and gifts to family in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
Video from NASCAR America
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- NASCAR: Dale Jr. expects even more performance in 2015 1
- John Force like you’ve never seen him: ‘Papa John’ the grandfather (video) 0
- Michael Schumacher’s son, Mick Jr., has ‘secret’ F4 test 3
- Report: The Sprint Experience will not return in 2015 4
- Vergne joins Ferrari as a test driver 1