While Kevin Harvick remains the most dominant driver of the 2015 Sprint Cup season, Jimmie Johnson is quietly becoming a serious contender for what could be a historic title run.
The six-time champion has shown over the past two race weekends that adversity and poor qualifying performances are not enough to stop the No. 48 team led by crew chief Chad Knaus.
At Richmond International Raceway this past weekend, Johnson showed speed in practice, but qualified 36th out of 43 cars. Starting near the back on the .75-mile short track, he worked his way through the field methodically in the opening stages of the race and remained a factor at the front most of the day.
In the end, Johnson finished third behind Stewart-Haas Racing teammates Kurt Busch and Harvick.
The road to a second-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway two weeks ago was no easy task, either. Johnson started 28th at Bristol and was involved in multiple wrecks, yet the team stuck together, made the changes and repairs that needed to be made, and walked away with a solid runner-up finish.
With victories at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway already this season, Johnson is locked into the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup field.
However, the Hendrick Motorsports driver believes if the No. 48 team wants to win more, its efforts on Fridays and in qualifying need to improve.
"We had a great race car and I really felt like that was the case on Friday, except for our qualifying lap," Johnson said after Sunday’s race at Richmond. "I don’t know what happened on Friday, and in general, I’m not the best qualifier. So Fridays, we’ve got to get those better in order to really win as often as we’d like to. We’ve got two wins and we’re making the most out of these poor starts and poor pit road picks. We’ve got to get better on Fridays."
Johnson believes it is too early to determine the true title contenders, but he fully expects his team to give the likes of Harvick, Busch and Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano a run for their money through the summer months and into the Chase.
Once in the Chase, Johnson has the opportunity to make NASCAR history by becoming only the third driver to win seven Sprint Cup titles, tying the mark set by Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.
The six-time champion knows anything can happen during those final 10 races of the season, and is not allowing himself to think about that possible seventh title just yet.
"I don’t think with this (Chase) format you can until five (laps) to go or two (laps) to go at Homestead or something. It is just a different animal these days," Johnson said. "We feel like we are one step closer to that opportunity, but once we get in the Chase, there are still so many things that can go on. And the fact you have to work your way through all the elimination rounds really changes the game."
Few have been better at adapting to the game than Johnson, and after gutsy performances at both Bristol and Richmond, the team is showing it has what it takes to be a serious title contender once again.