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?
Oct 24, 2014, 11:50 PM EDT
In a surprisingly candid admission, six-time Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson says that while nothing is imminent, the day is coming when he and crew chief Chad Knaus will go their separate ways.
Oct 24, 2014, 11:32 PM EDT
In a bemusing video released Thursday, NASCAR star Kevin Harvick spent one of his recent off nights working the room at an Outback Steakhouse.
Oct 24, 2014, 10:30 PM EDT
On Thursday, Jeff Gordon delivered the one millionth meal served by one of Gordon’s key sponsors, the Drive To End Hunger.
Oct 24, 2014, 10:26 PM EDT
Jimmy Prock, who resigned earlier this week as crew chief for 16-time Funny Car champ John Force, has been hired by rival Don Schumacher Racing.
Jeff Gordon would love to return to Saturday Night Live — and wants to bring Ricky Funck with him (video)
Oct 24, 2014, 7:59 PM EDT
Jeff Gordon said Friday he wants to return to host Saturday Night Live for a second time — and he wants to reprise the hysterical “Ricky Funck” character.
Oct 24, 2014, 6:37 PM EDT
A loose car and two brushes with the wall has put Kevin Harvick in a deep hole at the start of Sunday’s Eliminator Round opener.
Oct 24, 2014, 6:06 PM EDT
If racing at Martinsville Speedway was like buying an ice cream cone, Jamie McMurray double-dipped during Friday’s Sprint Cup qualifying, earning the pole and setting a new track speed record (99.905 mph) in the process.
Oct 24, 2014, 5:19 PM EDT
Both Blaney and Wallace are within 30 points of championship leader Matt Crafton going into tomorrow’s Camping World Truck Series race at Martinsville.
Oct 24, 2014, 4:30 PM EDT
A fifth win at Martinsville would put Hamlin into the Sprint Cup Championship Race at Homestead.
Oct 24, 2014, 3:25 PM EDT
Danica, who will swap CCs with teammate Kurt Busch starting next week at Texas, says she’s looking forward to working with the engineering-based Daniel Knost.
Oct 24, 2014, 2:15 PM EDT
GT/GTS races confirmed for split in 2015 by the Pirelli World Challenge series.
Oct 24, 2014, 1:40 PM EDT
Gordon leads group of four Chasers in Top 5 speeds; all 8 remaining Chasers within Top 15.
Oct 24, 2014, 1:30 PM EDT
Formula 1’s new technical regulations prompted Lotus to use a twin-tusk nose for 2014, but this could be scrapped for next season.
Oct 24, 2014, 1:15 PM EDT
The reigning Sprint Cup champion moves forward.
Oct 24, 2014, 12:50 PM EDT
Bernie Ecclestone allows the team to miss the next two races as it searches for a buyer.
Oct 24, 2014, 12:30 PM EDT
Deputy team boss Federico Gastaldi says the team is close to finalizing its drive line-up, with Grosjean in pole position for the seat.
Oct 24, 2014, 12:07 PM EDT
A win for Kenseth this Sunday would also put him into the Sprint Cup Championship Race at Homestead next month.
Oct 24, 2014, 11:45 AM EDT
Two-time Formula One World Champion Emerson Fittipaldi will make an appearance at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas next week as part of a COTA fan experience.
Oct 24, 2014, 11:30 AM EDT
Ricciardo full of praise for Austin and the Circuit of the Americas ahead of next weekend’s race.
The man behind the sculptures: William Behrends’ presence endures for Borg-Warner Trophy, and Giants legends
Oct 24, 2014, 11:09 AM EDT
Statues outside AT&T Park and the faces on the Borg-Warner Trophy share a common thread, in sculptor William Behrends.
Video from NASCAR America
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