Pressure's on Johnson to perform early
Jimmie Johnson promised Dale Earnhardt Jr. a case of beer after his Hendrick Motorsports teammate pushed him to the win at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday.
That’s a small price to pay for a five-time champion whose only focus is on a six-pack — The Sprint Cup Championship six-pack.
Johnson’s victory, his 54th in 335 career Cup starts, elevated the defending champion two positions in the point standings to second and just five points behind current leader Carl Edwards.
Methodically, Johnson has battled back from finishing 27th in the Daytona 500 with four top-five and five top-10 finishes. He entered Talladega with a 15-race winless streak — tying the second-longest drought of his career.
But Johnson felt the team had “been knocking on the door” of late. He cites three tracks — Bristol, Martinsville and California — where he had opportunities to close the deal and personally took responsibility for failing to execute in the latter two.
“I've always said it, when you run in the top five, you're going to have your opportunities, and (Sunday) we did that and certainly had a top-five car — if not the fastest — and opportunity presented itself and we got the job done,” Johnson said.
To that end, the team’s strategy has changed this season. Instead of riding around for most of the race in preparation of making a move at the end, the team is concentrating on expediting Johnson’s move to the front of the field early in the race.
“We want to be a little bit better and focusing on the top five and running in the top five more regularly throughout the course of a race, instead of just showing up there at the end, and we’ll be in Victory Lane,” Johnson said. “I’m sure the question will be asked and is probably already swirling a little bit and we’re (early) into the season. I took that big trophy home again last year, so I’m not too concerned and we’ll keep racing.
“It’s tough to win in this sport. We preach it all the time, especially myself, how difficult it is to win races and championships. I don’t know if people want to believe me, especially when we’re on a roll. It is very, very tough to do, and this year is proof of that to an even further extent.”
Still, Johnson has been solid. Particularly at four of the 10 tracks that will reappear in the title-deciding Chase for the Sprint Cup — Phoenix (third), Martinsville (11th), Texas (eighth) and Talladega (first).
If there is a weakness among Chase tracks, Johnson believes it would be on 1.5-mile venues. There are currently five 1.5-milers in the final 10 races of the season, and both Roush Fenway Racing and Richard Childress Racing excel at those tracks. Johnson acknowledges as a company, Hendrick Motorsports has played “catch up” on intermediate tracks, even though he and Earnhardt have posted top-10 finishes at Texas.
“At times we feel like we’ve made some good gains and there are other times we don’t,” Johnson said. “We have cars that run strong in a race and some cars that don’t. Jeff (Gordon) has been on that side that doesn’t run well at the 1.5-mile tracks here lately, and I know that he and his team are frustrated, but as a group we’re all working in different areas trying to find the speed.
“We have a lot of new components this year with the new aero balance and nose on the cars along with some stuff that we have developed internally for our chassis and our setups. So there are a lot of moving pieces right now, and I think as a group we are working well together and we’ll get there.”
Certainly, Johnson has his share of title contenders under his own roof at Hendrick Motorsports. But his outside competition this season is equally solid — perhaps as stout as the battle between Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick last season. Johnson is not counting out Harvick or Hamlin, but he’s cognizant that Roush Fenway Racing has picked up the pace considerably — particularly Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth.
“The Roush group has made huge gains, and I said last year it was kind of obvious with how Carl is running — but that’s a very mature team,” Johnson said. “They went through a tough period of time and stuck together. We didn’t hear about he and Bob Osborne tearing each other apart and the team dismantling itself. They went down the rough road and came through it and are winning races and running well.
“Clearly all the Roush cars are. You look at the Texas race last weekend and all the Roush-affiliated cars pretty much took up the top six or eight spots on the race track. They’ve figured something out. I think there is a lot of racing left between now and when the Chase starts. We have time to get our stuff right.”