After enduring the worst losing streak of his career, six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson is suddenly back in the hunt to finally win a seventh title.
Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Johnson broke a 24-race winless streak to score a dominating victory in the Bank of America 500. With the victory, Johnson is guaranteed to make the semifinal round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, a round that features three tracks where he’s won a total of 18 races in his career.
Pretty much all summer, Johnson stunk up the joint — at least by the lofty standards of Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the entire No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team — but now he’s in a great position to tie Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for the most NASCAR Premier Series championships.
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How did it happen?
One word: Speed.
For most of the summer, Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets simply weren’t fast enough to win against the Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing Toyotas. The lack of speed meant that Johnson would have to overdrive the car to try and run with the Toyotas. That resulted in a lot of mistakes and poor finishes.
The situation was not lost on team owner Rick Hendrick.
“Nobody has to remind me that we hadn't won a race,” Hedrick told reporters after Johnson’s victory at Charlotte. “You guys remind me of that every weekend, and they do on TV. I think we were washed up and should have quit. But it kind of motivated us, and you know, Jimmie — we just lacked speed through the middle part, early part of the year. Just had to work really hard to gain it back.”
And the did just that.
Once the Chase began, Johnson’s cars were suddenly fast again. In fact, were it not for a couple of pit road penalties, Johnson might have won three of the first four Chase races.
The six-time champion has led 363 laps in the Chase so far, three laps more than Martin Truex Jr., who won two of the first three Chase races.
Of course, finding that speed was not easy, quick or simple. And according to Johnson, the talks among the various team leaders were cordial, but blunt.
“We're realists. We don't sugar-coat things internally,” said Johnson. “Might lie to you a little bit and act like everything is okay, but we get behind closed doors, we're realists, and we were not happy with where our cars were during the summer.”
What Hendrick is doing now is part of the ebb-and-flow of NASCAR competition. Joe Gibbs Racing won just two races in 2014, but rebounded to win 13 and a championship last year and 11 so far this year.
Maybe now it’s time for the Hendrick squad to step up.
That remains to be seen, but it’s safe to say it looks like they can go a lot further now than anyone would have guessed over the summer.