Johnson looks to end 'drought' by continuing Charlotte reign
Jimmie Johnson, who sits on the pole for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, is still looking for his first win of 2014. He's winless in his last 13 Sprint Cup starts, dating back to last season.
Driver Jimmie Johnson (left) listens as crew chief Chad Knaus offers some wisdom during practice for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Will Schneekloth / Getty Images North America
By Jared Turner
CONCORD, N.C. --Jimmie Johnson hasn't won in the season's first 11 races and is 0-for-13 dating back to the final two Sprint Cup events of last season.
Johnson, who has repeatedly downplayed his "drought" -- as some folks are calling it -- in recent weeks, captured the pole on Thursday night for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
So is he the favorite to go to Victory Lane in the 600-mile marathon that is NASCAR's longest race?
"Qualifying is on Thursday and (the race) is so far away," said Johnson, who led all qualifiers with a lap of 194.911 mph in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevy. "You're really worrying about beating the tires up versus a fuel run when you're out there. It certainly shows that we are going to be strong this weekend. I'm not sure that it sends a message that two or three race wins would send. That's the position I want to get in.
"I'd love to rattle two or three wins and have people fear the 48 again as they have in the past. I don't think a pole position does that in the garage area, but you have to start somewhere."
Johnson has six points-paying wins at Charlotte, to go along with a record four in the Sprint All-Star Race. Prior to Thursday night, the reigning six-time Sprint Cup champion had three Charlotte poles -- two of which translated into victories.
In fact, Johnson is the only driver to win from the pole at the 1.5-mile track since 1998.
All of this combined with the constant reminders that he has yet to win in 2014 could add up to a big night on Sunday for Johnson and his team that is led by crew chief Chad Knaus.
Second-place qualifier Brad Keselowski isn't particularly concerned about the No. 48 bunch, however.
"I would not be happy running 42nd and beating Jimmie Johnson," said Keselowski, the 2012 series champion. "I want to beat everybody. There are a lot of other good drivers that havenât won a race this year as well, so certainly Jimmie has a great track record and beyond, but Iâm not gonna sit here and just focus on him. There are a lot of other good cars."
Johnson seems somewhat amused that his success or lack thereof this season remains such a hot topic.
"Honestly no matter what I do, people talk about it -- and I don't mean that in a bad way," the California native said. "If I win, then I'm winning too much. If I'm not winning, then it's 'Why aren't you winning?' So I can't do it right either way. I learned a long time ago to not pay attention to the outside voices and influences and just worry about my race team.
"We've been good and had a chance to win at a few tracks. And then at some our bad tracks, we went in there and ran terrible. I'll be the first to admit it. I think we deserve a fair evaluation at times. We've been close to wins and we've been pathetic at other tracks. This is a good track for us."
Despite his stellar history at Charlotte, Johnson posted an unspectacular sixth-place finish in last weekend's Sprint All-Star Race -- an event he had not only won but dominated the two previous seasons. Johnson was fifth in Saturday's final "Happy Hour" practice, however, and seemed poised for a strong Sunday.
Johnson, who historically excels with cars that air on the loose side, is admittedly still finding his way with the new-for-2014 rules package that favors a tight car.
"Yeah, that's definitely what we've been dealing with," he said. "We develop a balance of a car in practice by ourselves in single-car runs; and then in traffic situations, find that balance is just too uncomfortable to drive. So we're trying to trade off single-car speed versus how the car handles in traffic has been kind of our goal. I do like a loose race car and as we get in traffic, the car typically gets looser. So if you start with a loose car and you end up deep in traffic, you're not really going anywhere; you're kind of stuck. And yes, I'm not the best driver of a tight race car.
"A lot of tools have been taken away from us to help the car turn. So it's something that I'm trying to adapt to and sort out. There are always different challenges in this sport, and I know that we'll get it."