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?
Mar 31, 2015, 6:04 PM EDT
Off the Grid Mexico kicks off with episode one of a six-part digital series.
Mar 31, 2015, 4:17 PM EDT
Jann Mardenborough and two spectators were released after this weekend’s VLN crash at the Nurburgring.
Mar 31, 2015, 3:00 PM EDT
Subaru’s Red Bull GRC challenger revealed.
Mar 31, 2015, 1:52 PM EDT
ESM recaps its test from the Prologue at Paul Ricard.
Mar 31, 2015, 12:47 PM EDT
IMS statement comes out after Indiana’s recent religious freedom legislation.
Mar 31, 2015, 11:15 AM EDT
Catching up on the rest of the action from St. Petersburg, with a run through the moments of contact that triggered avoidable contact penalties.
Mar 31, 2015, 10:11 AM EDT
Rolling Stones to play at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Mar 31, 2015, 9:33 AM EDT
Loose debris hit by a car, then goes over wall and hits a fan outside Turn 10 at St. Petersburg.
Mar 30, 2015, 4:00 PM EDT
Hawksworth, Filippi impress on opening outings with their new teams in St. Petersburg.
Mar 30, 2015, 3:15 PM EDT
IndyCar’s “old guard” reigned in St. Petersburg, as the new manufacturer aero kits debuted.
Mar 30, 2015, 2:30 PM EDT
Victory number 70 of the Italian’s remarkable Moto GP career.
Mar 30, 2015, 1:35 PM EDT
However, Williams test driver Susie Wolff believes that women should be reaching F1 in a more organic way.
Mar 30, 2015, 12:00 PM EDT
KVSH’s Bourdais gets result after a consistent drive; KV’s Coletti stars but fades after late race splash-and-dash for fuel.
Mar 30, 2015, 11:00 AM EDT
Pro Mazda, USF2000, Pirelli World Challenge, SST roundup from St. Petersburg.
Mar 30, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT
Chevrolet aero kits dominate on debut at St. Petersburg.
Mar 30, 2015, 9:30 AM EDT
Swedish driver was fighting in the points before spinning off into the gravel on lap three in Malaysia.
Mar 30, 2015, 8:00 AM EDT
Wolff defends the decision to fit Lewis Hamilton with hard tires at his final pit stop.
NHRA: Jack Beckman (54 races), Larry Morgan (120 races) snap lengthy winless streaks in 4-Wide Nationals
Mar 29, 2015, 10:00 PM EDT
Jack Beckman (Funny Car) and Larry Morgan (Pro Stock) broke lengthy winless streaks in Sunday’s finals of the 4-Wide Nationals in Concord, N.C.
Mar 29, 2015, 8:40 PM EDT
The year-on-year evolution of JPM showcases a driver still getting even better.
Mar 29, 2015, 8:15 PM EDT
Will Power’s brother brings the jokes while live tweeting Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
- Off The Grid Mexico Kicks Off on NBCSports.com (VIDEO) 0
- Spectator injured but in stable condition after being hit by debris at St. Pete race 1
- Experience trumps youth on IndyCar’s opening weekend with aero kits 1
- NHRA: Jack Beckman (54 races), Larry Morgan (120 races) snap lengthy winless streaks in 4-Wide Nationals 2
- Montoya’s evolution evident after statement victory in St. Pete 2
- Montoya ekes out win in St. Petersburg season opener 6
- Emotional Vettel revels in first victory for Ferrari 5