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?
Sep 20, 2014, 6:03 PM EDT
The Red Bull GRC championship tightens dramatically after the first race of the weekend in L.A.
Sep 20, 2014, 5:42 PM EDT
Ty Dillon is bound and determined to give it his all to win the Nationwide Series championship this season. He took a big step Saturday afternoon by earning the pole for the VisitMyrtleBeach.com 300 later that evening at Kentucky Speedway. Sam Hornish Jr. will start on the outside of the front row.
Sep 20, 2014, 4:45 PM EDT
CLICK HERE for stream links to the first of two GRC finals this weekend from Los Angeles.
Sep 20, 2014, 4:00 PM EDT
Custer holds off Darrell Wallace Jr. and Matt Crafton to win the Camping World Truck Series’ UNOH 175 at New Hampshire.
Sep 20, 2014, 3:30 PM EDT
Ferrari and Red Bull could have – perhaps even should have – been in the mix for pole position. Mercedes was simply too good for them, once again, though.
Sep 20, 2014, 3:20 PM EDT
Head-to-head, there’s very few Sprint Cup drivers that can beat Jimmie Johnson. But Tyler Clary can kick Johnson’s butt any time he wants to.
Sep 20, 2014, 2:25 PM EDT
Friday recap from Red Bull GRC in LA is in the books.
Sep 20, 2014, 2:00 PM EDT
“We break our balls to make a good qualifying and you lose five-tenths every single straight line because the thing cuts” – tough talk from the Frenchman.
Sep 20, 2014, 12:45 PM EDT
For the first time all weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, someone else besides Brad Keselowski got to the top of the leaderboard.
Sep 20, 2014, 12:00 PM EDT
Australian driver qualifies third for the Singapore Grand Prix ahead of teammate Sebastian Vettel.
Sep 20, 2014, 11:45 AM EDT
The 16-year-old earns his second career Truck Series pole ahead of today’s UNOH 175 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Sep 20, 2014, 11:30 AM EDT
The F1 championship leader falls agonizingly short of pole position in qualifying for the Singapore GP on Saturday.
Sep 20, 2014, 10:30 AM EDT
Under overcast skies and with ambient temperatures around 40 degrees – a far cry from what’s expected for Sunday – Keselowski posted a hot lap of 135.622 mph to pace the field.
Sep 20, 2014, 10:06 AM EDT
Hamilton bags pole position by the narrowest of margins on Saturday night in Singapore.
Sep 20, 2014, 8:15 AM EDT
Track preview of LA course for Red Bull Global Rallycross.
Video from NASCAR America
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