The past few weeks have not gone according to plan for six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson. After scoring three wins in four weeks, Johnson struggled over the past five weeks.
It appeared that Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway was going to continue that downward trend for the No. 48 team.
Throughout practice, Johnson fought a bad vibration all weekend long, failing to show speed in practice and qualifying. While the team was able to work out the issue with the vibration, once the green flag flew for the Pure Michigan 400, there were a host of other issues the team was forced to deal with.
Starting 30th on the day, Johnson brought the No. 48 Chevrolet to pit road on Lap 5 after Kyle Busch hit the wall to bring out the first caution of the day. Pitting early crew chief Chad Knaus tried to get on a different pit strategy than the rest of the leaders by staying out during the competition caution at Lap 21.
That plan did not work out as the caution flew once again at Lap 38 for debris. A frustrated Knaus called his driver to pit road for two tires, but made a last-minute call to take four tires and sent his driver out 20th.
Things got worse for Johnson when he reported on Lap 49 that his gear shifter had broken, asking for vice grips on the next pit stop to help fix the issues.
While the team was able to pass a pair of vice grips into the car on his next green flag pit stop, Johnson was unable to fix the shifter before he had to rejoin the racing surface at speed.
Eventually, the team was able to fix the shifter under caution, but after that Johnson was off sequence to the leaders. Using a varying pit strategy, Knaus was able to put his driver in a position to have tires late work his way into the top 10.
With fresh rubber and a fast car, Johnson’s challenges were not over yet. Racing his way to the top 10, Johnson battled hard with the always-tough Ryan Newman.
Getting the advantage, Johnson was able to cap off a frustrating weekend with a ninth-place finish, his best finish in seven weeks. Happy with the solid finish, Johnson understands the team still has work to do.
"We still had these obstacles," said Johnson. "That’s the thing we’ve got to figure out within the next few weeks. The clock is ticking and we’re running out of time on that front. But we have fast race cars and they keep saying we show it during the race, but the results haven’t been there. This was a good recovery for today, but it’s certainly not we want to be."
Team owner Rick Hendrick admitted the No. 48 team was having "a rough stretch," but also pointed out the same thing happened before the Chase last season, when Johnson won his sixth championship.
For Hendrick, though, Sunday’s results proved nobody on the team was going to give up when facing adversity.
"I think what they show is they can battle back, figure out a way not to lose with the shifter broken in the car, not to lose laps, then Chad focuses on trying to get him back on the lead lap, get him in position with tires at the end of the race to maybe even get a top five," said Hendrick. "I think that’s just calling a great race and Jimmie not giving up. Hopefully we have all the bad luck behind us now. They’ll be able to go to the next race feeling great."
Hendrick was quick to point out the next stretch of races was good to the No. 48 team, and that if they were going to have bad luck, it’s better to happen before the Chase.
After the race, Newman confronted Johnson in the garage, taking issue with how he was raced.
"Oh, it was just normal ‘Ryan Newman stuff,’" Johnson said of his post-race run-in. "Anybody who has watched this sport long enough or has been in a race car out there understands the frustration that comes along with racing Ryan. Just normal Ryan stuff. And I don’t want to take away anything from what this awesome race team did. Granted, we put ourselves in a bad position with the shift lever breaking off and was able to rally back and get ourselves a good finish. It was unfortunate we didn’t get any further up in the field, but we still salvaged a lot today."
VIDEO: Jimmie Johnson talks about his eventful day at Michigan