Jun 16, 2014, 12:24 PM EDT
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?
Apr 21, 2015, 9:54 AM EDT
Sam Schmidt’s story featured on NBC Nightly News; he completes a lap of Long Beach in Arrow Electronics SAM Car, a modified Corvette C7 Stingray.
Apr 20, 2015, 5:00 PM EDT
The joys of return flights home from the West Coast for the IndyCar community..
Apr 20, 2015, 3:15 PM EDT
Another tough day at office for Honda, Newgarden comes up short of top-five and other tidbits from Long Beach.
Apr 20, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT
Sebastian Saavedra has a clean, quiet, consistent weekend and ended P10 on debut for Ganassi.
Apr 20, 2015, 12:49 PM EDT
It was a bizarre weekend for Dale Coyne’s No. 18, which saw one driver replaced before the weekend began, one injured before getting the chance to debut, and one finally getting a long overdue shot.
Apr 20, 2015, 11:38 AM EDT
Long Beach got off to a great start, courtesy of Patrick Stewart’s enthusiastic command to start engines.
Apr 20, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT
It may have been a routine victory for Lewis Hamilton in Bahrain, but both Nico Rosberg and Kimi Raikkonen showed some of the fight that has been lacking in recent months.
Apr 20, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT
Ferrari team principal believes two mistakes from the four-time world champion cost him a place on the podium in Bahrain.
Apr 20, 2015, 8:00 AM EDT
A mistake by Sebastian Vettel allows Bottas to take fourth place on Sunday in Bahrain.
Apr 19, 2015, 9:53 PM EDT
JPM, Helio laugh about the four nationalities represented at Team Penske.
Apr 19, 2015, 7:41 PM EDT
Bobby Unser praises Scott Dixon, while Dixon himself downplays the accomplishment.
Apr 19, 2015, 6:18 PM EDT
Scott Dixon finally wins in Long Beach.
Apr 19, 2015, 6:00 PM EDT
The nine-time world champion extends his lead at the top of the riders’ championship in MotoGP.
Apr 19, 2015, 5:32 PM EDT
Dixon leads halfway at Long Beach.
Apr 19, 2015, 5:00 PM EDT
Romain Grosjean manages to salvage some points for Lotus in Bahrain, finishing seventh.
Apr 19, 2015, 4:00 PM EDT
Ed Jones survives streets of Long Beach to win Round 3 for Indy Lights.
Apr 19, 2015, 3:45 PM EDT
Ricciardo finishes the race in a blaze of glory, but holds on to sixth place for Red Bull.
Apr 19, 2015, 3:30 PM EDT
Watch the third round of the IndyCar season, from the streets of Long Beach, at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra.
Apr 19, 2015, 3:15 PM EDT
German driver was forced to make an unscheduled pit stop towards the end of the race in Bahrain after running over the kerbs at the final corner.
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