The questions were becoming far too routine, the concern likely quite premature.
When was Jimmie Johnson going to earn his first victory of the 2014 Sprint Cup Series season?
As he has many times before, Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team produced an emphatic answer.
He led a race-high 164 of 400 laps and held off Kevin Harvick to win Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, site of six previous Cup victories by Johnson in his career.
Instead of questioning his and his team’s resolve, the criticism might have awakened a napping giant.
“More than anything, I just got tired of answering the question. There wasn’t a lot of frustration due to pressure of winning,” said Johnson, who earned his sixth Cup series title last season. “There was frustration in not having fast race cars, but that’s a different situation.
“We hold ourselves to a high standard. I think we’re onto some good things and have a good direction to go with our race cars.”
If so, the road ahead only looks easier for Johnson.
Up next is Sunday’s FedEx 400 at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, where Johnson has won five of the past 10 races. After that, a trip to Pocono (Pa.) Raceway, where he won from the pole a year ago.
Not only does Johnson head to tracks where he excels, but he does so knowing he has the necessary victory in hand that all-but locks up a berth in this season’s Chase.
“We haven’t been in that position yet to really explore that. The thing that’s on our side is that we’ve got a little bit of time to really get an understanding of what’s going on,” said Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus.
“The other thing we’ve got on our side is we’re going to Dover, Delaware, which is by far one of Jimmie’s favorite race tracks. Then we’re going to Pocono, which is one of my favorite race tracks. Doesn’t hurt.
“I think over the next couple of weeks we’re going to be in pretty good shape.”
Sunday night’s victory did not come without stiff competition.
Harvick, who along with Joey Logano are the only drivers to win more than once this season, looked to have just as dominant a car during much of the race as Johnson.
Harvick was slowed when he was forced to pit under green on Lap 263 of 400 for a loose wheel, and he fell a lap down. He made his way back to the lead lap and back into contention, but not in time to run down Johnson.
“We needed a 700-mile race to get back to where we needed to be,” Harvick said.
During the final caution, many of the lead-lap cars elected to pit, but Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Johnson had made their final stops under green and elected to remain on the track.
Gordon was the leader on the restart on Lap 384, followed by Kenseth, Johnson, Martin Truex Jr. and Carl Edwards.
Johnson finally worked his way around Kenseth for the lead on Lap 392 and spent the final laps holding off a fast-approaching Harvick.
Kenseth finished third, Edwards was fourth and Jamie McMurray fifth.
Series points leader Gordon ended up seventh, but completed all 600 miles despite dealing most of the week with severe back spasms.
“I’m happy that I got through it,” Gordon said. “It tells me a lot about what kind of threshold I have and I just want to show this team the kind of commitment I have to them because of what they have shown me this year.”
While the victory for Johnson was important, the aftermath from Sunday night’s results is likely to resonate even more throughout the garage in the coming weeks.
“Yeah, they know we’re awake,” Johnson said.