Jimmie Johnson would prefer a higher profile entering the Chase

Jimmie Johnson gets ready to practice at Chicagoland Friday. (Getty Images)

Jimmie Johnson gets ready to practice at Chicagoland Friday. (Getty Images)

JOLIET, Ill. – If you’re looking for a driver with a strong head of steam entering the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, you’re probably not thinking of Jimmie Johnson.

The only driver to have qualified for every Chase since the inception of NASCAR’s playoff format in 2004, Johnson is seeking his seventh Sprint Cup title this year, but no one, it seems, is talking about the prospect of a record-tying championship.

That’s because, statistically speaking, the driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is suffering through his least productive season at NASCAR’s highest level—ever.

Consider the following numbers. With 10 top 10s through 26 races, Johnson will have to finish in the top 10 in each of the Chase races just to match his lowest career total of 20 in a season (2003 and 2014). With 266 laps led so far this year (and only 51 since the ninth race of the season at Richmond), Johnson is on pace for a career low in that category; in 2005 he led 547 laps.

Johnson has two victories this season, none since the fifth event of the year, at Fontana, Calif. Only once before, in 2011, has Johnson won as few as two races in a season. His average finish of 15.3 is tied for a career worst established in 2014.

So why was Johnson smiling when he fielded questions from reporters during Thursday’s Ready.Set.Chase Launch Event in Chicago?

Perhaps because the Chase is about to start. Perhaps because the 10 Chase tracks fall right into the No. 48 team’s wheelhouse. And perhaps because Johnson has won six of the last 10 high-speed playoffs in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

Nevertheless, Johnson doesn’t enjoy his position as a handicapper’s also-ran.

“No,” he said emphatically. “Hell, I’d rather be dominating and be on top and be the top pick. I don’t like where we’re at. We’re working hard. There’s a lot of optimism and a lot of great things happening. We just need to deliver consistently and execute at the track. “The way that the Chase works, if we can run in the top five and stay alive and make it to Homestead, you know, we do have some time to sort things out and get back to where we need to be.”

Staying alive until Homestead has been a problem for the 48 team in the first two years of the Chase’s elimination format. Johnson made it to the second round in 2014 before exiting after Talladega. Last year, a mechanical failure knocked him out in the first round at Dover—one of his best two tracks.

Though listeners to the team radio have often noted a palpable tension between the driver and crew chief Chad Knaus, Johnson says his relationship with Knaus isn’t the problem in and of itself.

“It’s a frustrating journey when you’re off,” Johnson said. “When you’re on, it’s easy, practically. If we were being outrun by our teammates week in and week out, we weren’t the lead car at Hendrick, we’d probably have to look real hard at the relationship between me and Chad.

“But with that not being the case, we’re just frustrated. The things that are seen and heard, the unhappiness is due to the competitive spirit in both of us. We don’t want to roll over. We don’t want to be in the position we’re in. I guess that’s where that frustration comes from.”

Even though Johnson doesn’t enter this Chase as one of the favorites, however, it would be a mistake to count him out prematurely.

“You can’t ever discount him and Chad Knaus and what they’ve been able to accomplish in this sport over the last decade,” said defending Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch. “So that’s why you always put them in there.”

It’s the Chase, after all, and of the 120 Chase races held so far, Johnson has won 26. No other driver is within light years of that total.

And, oh, by the way, when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series finally got on the track on Friday evening, after rain disrupted the opening-day schedule, the fastest car in the hour-long practice session at 183.780 mph was the No. 48.

SHORT STROKES

After last Saturday’s accident at Richmond—not to mentioned the harsh words that followed—Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart met with NASCAR officials for roughly 30 minutes on Friday and appeared to have their differences settled when they emerged from the sanctioning body’s hauler. Stewart summed it up: “As far as we’re concerned, it’s over,” he said…

Cole Custer will drive the new NASCAR XFINITY Series entry for Stewart-Haas Racing next year. Currently driving the No. 00 Camping World Truck Series entry for JR Motorsports, Custer will take the wheel of an identically numbered Mustang near year, as SHR debuts its XFINITY program in its transition year from Chevrolet to Ford…

A bout with the flu kept Brendan Gaughan out of the No. 62 Chevrolet during Friday’s XFINITY Series practice. Austin Dillon subbed for Gaughan in the Richard Childress Racing entry. Brother Ty Dillon filled in for Regan Smith in Tommy Baldwin’s No. 7 Sprint Cup Chevrolet on Friday after Smith returned to North Carolina for the birth of his child…

Alex Bowman, subbing for sidelined Dale Earnhardt Jr., was sixth fastest at 182.285 mph and the top non-Chase driver in Friday’s Sprint Cup practice session, but Bowman spun the No. 88 Chevrolet while trying to enter pit road on his final lap. Bowman, however, avoided contact with the walls. Defending race winner Denny Hamlin was third fastest at 182.927 mph.

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