Six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson finds himself in a somewhat foreign role these days:
Just one of the guys.
“We haven’t been the dominant car. We’ve been a good car,” Johnson said Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “We still have nine weeks to get our act together. If we turn our good car into a great car at Homestead, then maybe we get the seventh (title). But this is a tough industry.”
The results reflect that. Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet finished 12th last week at Chicagoland in the first race of the Chase. NASCAR tweaked its playoff format this season, creating a series of three-race elimination rounds.
Three of Johnson’s favorite tracks – Dover, Martinsville and Charlotte – await on the Chase schedule. But Johnson has plenty at stake Sunday in the Sylvania 300, on New Hampshire’s 1.06-mile layout.
“We’re eighth in points and certainly don’t want to fall further than that,” Johnson said. “We’re rolling along, hoping to get hot.”
He was hot in May and June, not surprisingly at some of his favorite tracks. Johnson won three races in the span of four weeks at Charlotte, Dover and Michigan.
Johnson was asked Friday how much comfort he takes in the upcoming schedule. Not much, apparently.
“Stats are nice to look at, but you’ve got to live in the present,” Johnson said. “Just because we’ve been good at those tracks doesn’t guarantee us anything going back. It makes the week leading into it feel a little bit better, it gives us some talking points, but you still have to go there and get the job done.
“Any benefit you have really just carries you through the week until you get on the track. Then timing and scoring are what we live by.”
Johnson just celebrated his 39th birthday (quietly, he said, over ice cream with his 4-year-old daughter). Knowing he’s a year away from 40 reminded him of his mortality in this sport.
“Just a while ago I was the rookie up-and-comer,” he said. “I just watched Kyle (Larson, a 22-year-old rookie) walk out and he could still be in high school. Time does fly and certainly in this industry. It’s all in fast-forward.”
All four Hendrick cars qualified for the Chase, so Johnson’s teammates are also a large portion of his remaining competition. He sounded envious of the consistency teammate Jeff Gordon has demonstrated this season. The difference in their seasons illustrates there’s no one-size-fits-all in sports, despite what the term “stock car” implies.
“Jeff Gordon and I have lived in the same shop for a long time. Even though the cars are prepared by the same people and the core is the same, we have totally different set-ups to get our cars fast,” Johnson said. “I look at the 24 and the way he drives the car and I’m not surprised that I’m not as hot.
“Our styles are that different. The rules have changed so much, (limiting) our ability to get the car through the corners. A lot of tools have been taken away from us and I’m still getting my head around driving a tighter race car.”
Johnson speculates his success at Dover and Martinsville (a combined 16 races won) is about those being “quirky” tracks where his off-road experience translates. He notes that two other Chase layouts – Phoenix and Homestead – haven’t been so favorable to his style.
He knows this for sure: Whatever advantage he once held over the field has narrowed, if not disappeared.
“How do we get speed? We had it for three races this year, so it’s in there,” Johnson said. “But you all see how close the times are in practice and qualifying.
“It doesn’t take that much to make a difference – a tenth (of a mile per hour) can totally turn things around. We’re just looking for that sliver of speed to get right back in that position.”