Dover could be Jimmie Johnson’s best chance to end winless drought

DOVER, DE - MAY 04: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's for Pros Chevrolet, talks with his crew chief, Chad Knaus, during qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway on May 4, 2018 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

Dover, Del. – If it were as simple as good vibes producing great results, Californian Jimmie Johnson is a sure-bet to end a 33-race trophy drought in the AAA 400 Drive for Autism (2 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Dover (Del.) International Raceway this weekend.

But it takes more than just positive energy. Yes, Johnson, 42, conceded, he is encouraged by a string of three consecutive top-12 finishes (including a third place at the Bristol, Tenn. half-miler) entering the weekend. And he always feels a sense of calm arriving at the notoriously tough Dover “Monster Mile”, where he has been absolutely dominant over the course of his career. Eleven trophies will do that for you. He is one shy of having as many Dover wins as Sunday’s entire starting field – combined.

“With it being my best track and the love I have for this place, I’m always excited to come, but trying to get the No. 48 [Lowe’s for Pros] car back into Victory Lane, I can take a little pressure off myself here knowing that the rhythm-style and the way you drive this track and the set-up for the car,” Johnson said Friday. “

“We’ll get it close, and history shows that. Hopefully we get it perfect and we can have the day that we really want to have and get back to Victory Lane. But it does take a little pressure off me knowing that this is my best track and knowing that this is my favorite track.”

But other than a last-lap win by Austin Dillon in the season-opening Daytona 500, the Chevrolet drivers like Johnson have admittedly been on a learning curve getting the hang of the new Camaro body this season.

“We’re working hard on it and we are doing a better job and we’re seeing those rewards slowly coming along,’’ he said. “I think we have been the benchmark or that high watermark for so many years, that other manufacturers and teams invested a couple of years in figuring out how to beat us. And we’re living through that right now.

“We’re needing to recreate ourselves and how we go about handling business. And a lot of that change has happened, and I think it’ll just take a little bit longer before it really starts providing for us.”

As he spoke to the NASCAR media Friday morning from the track, Johnson was his typically calm, optimistic and realistic self. And in the midst of everyone else’s “concerns” that he hasn’t won since the Dover spring race last year – the longest time in his career between wins – he also issued a good reminder for his fans and the race pundits to stay calm.

His historic tally of 11 wins at Dover, his seven Monster Energy NASCAR Cup championships – including an unprecedented five straight from 2006-2010 – are an absolutely remarkable accomplishment; one most don’t believe will ever happen again in the history of the sport.

And with 83 wins – nearly twice as many as the next closest active driver – Johnson is a single victory from tying NASCAR Hall of Famers Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip on the all-time list. That big number could easily come this week.

Patience and understanding in always-evolving circumstance are necessary, he cautioned.

“I think I’m doomed, regardless, right now,” Johnson acknowledged a bit tongue in cheek, adding, “I mean it doesn’t matter the track or the result unless it’s a win, and lots of wins.

“I think we have created an environment of very high expectations because of the success we’ve had and I think people forget how special our run has been and we certainly want to get back into those ways and have it happen again. But history shows it doesn’t happen very often. And we’re very fortunate to harness lightning for a long stretch of time.

“The encouraging news is we are making our cars better each and every week. I’m more of a realist in where we’re at and what we’re doing, and reflect back and think damn, we had it really good for a while and it was really special. But we’re a victim of our own success, and I hope to create the headlines that we want and the headlines being along the lines of well, they should have won. It was Dover.”

He has five pole positions, and a series best 17 top-five finishes in 32 starts – better than 50 percent of the time. Johnson holds the all-time record for laps led (3,105 laps) and his 9.1 average finish is best among any driver with more than four starts. Only nine times in his 17-year career has he not scored at least a top-10 finish here.

So while Johnson – always a Hendrick Motorsports team player – smiled and offered encouragement when asked about his 22-year old teammate Chase Elliott’s chances to score his career first victory at Dover on Sunday – there was little doubt as to Johnson’s preferred storyline.

“That’s a good one,’’ Johnson answered, smiling. “But, I know who I want it to be. Chase is a great guy and [Johnson’s daughter] Lydia’s favorite driver, but, it’s time for dad to win.”

Johnson will start 19th Sunday.

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