Jimmie Johnson isn’t persuaded his No. 48 team is running well enough to win the 2014 Sprint Cup championship, tying Johnson with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most titles in NASCAR’s top series.
Johnson, however, doesn’t believe the performance gap between himself and the drivers who are in championship form is too great to overcome this season.
With nine races to go, the reigning and six-time Sprint Cup champion is in a three-way tie with Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch for sixth in the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup field.
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Johnson opened the Chase with an unspectacular 12th-place finish last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, where Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon finished 1-2 to further cement their already legitimate claim as title favorites. Also in the top five were Joey Logano (fourth) and Kevin Harvick (fifth) — two other drivers widely regarded as title threats.
Not surprisingly, Johnson describes the current mood around the No. 48 shop as "not the best."
"Truth be told, you look at the No. 4 (Harvick) and look at the No. 2 (Keselowski) and you look at the No. 24 (Gordon) consistently over the year, those guys have been there," Johnson said on Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. "It’s a new rules package. Believe me, we’re working our guts out to find the speed and to be that dominant car. But truthfully, we’re not the dominant car right now. We’re a good car.
"We still have nine weeks to get our act together. Especially the way this Chase lays out, if we continue to get the most out of our good car and have a great car at Homestead (in the final race), if we’re in that position, then we can get seven (championships)."
While Johnson appears poised to be among the dozen men who will advance from the Chase Challenger Round to the Contender Round, which consists of playoff races No. 4-6, the Hendrick Motorsports driver fully concedes there are improvements to be made if he wants to score his seventh championship in nine seasons.
"We hold ourselves to a higher and expect to operate at a higher level," Johnson said. "But it’s the same that we’ve probably had through the majority of the year, where we’ve been good. We had a small window of being great. But in any competitive sport, if you’re not great, it’s hard to have a ray of sunshine shining through in certain areas. So we’re realists.
"As the No. 48 and in the culture of Hendrick Motorsports, we expect a lot out of ourselves, let alone what any outside pressure would be. And we’re not where we want to be. But again, with this format of the Chase, there’s time."
Since winning at Michigan in mid-June, Johnson and his Chad Knaus-led team have gone 12 races without a trip to Victory Lane. Over that stretch, Johnson has led just 28 laps and recorded a best finish of fourth — twice.
It has truly been an odd season for the recently turned 39-year-old who after going winless in the first 11 races, ripped off three victories in four outings. But since the last of those triumphs, the veteran wheelman has come up empty.
"Last year we had a really poor summer and got off to a great start in the Chase and heated up and went from headlines saying, ‘What’s wrong with the No. 48?’ to ‘Here we go again; I knew it,’" Johnson said. "I wish I could explain why teams are good and bad and why it’s so hard to be consistent all year long. But last year, even though we had a tough end of the regular season, we were in position to win a lot of races. And we did win a bunch during the course of the year.
"We’ve had one hot spot in the middle of the year this year and we’ve kind of been lukewarm on the other sides. I’m hoping we heat up. I’m hoping we get to that hot spot again."
It could help that three upcoming tracks — Dover, Charlotte and Martinsville — are places where Johnson either leads all active drivers in wins or is tied for most wins among active drivers.
"It’s awesome to have tracks that you love and tracks that you’ve had success at in the Chase," Johnson said. "I feel like seven or eight of them have been historically awesome tracks for us. That part is great. Stats are nice to look at, but you’ve got to live in the present. So just because we’ve been good at those tracks before 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 and places to look at and focus on, but we still have to show up there and get the job done."