Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports enter the Chase under the radar

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 17:  Jimmie Johnson driver of the #48 LOWE'S Chevrolet speaks to the press during NASCAR Chase Media Day on September 17, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Kena Krutsinger/NASCAR via Getty Images)

CHICAGO, IL – SEPTEMBER 17: Jimmie Johnson driver of the #48 LOWE’S Chevrolet speaks to the press during NASCAR Chase Media Day on September 17, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Kena Krutsinger/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Why is the top seed in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup also the playoff’s invisible man?

By all rights, Jimmie Johnson ought to be front and center in the Chase conversation, and not just because the driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has won six titles under changing Chase formats, five of them consecutively from 2006 through 2010.

The only driver to have qualified for every Chase since the inception of the format in 2004, Johnson has won a phenomenal 25 Chase races in 110 starts, a batting average of 22.73 percent. No one else is close. Tony Stewart with 11 victories is the only other driver in double figures, and five of those wins came during his extraordinary run to the championship in 2011.

In those 110 Chase races, Johnson has recorded an average finish of 9.6. Next best is reigning Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick at 12.2 (a statistic that includes all Chase races run, whether or not the driver was eligible for the championship).

Talladega notwithstanding, the race tracks in the Chase are squarely in the wheelhouse of Johnson and Chad Knaus, the only crew chief Johnson has ever worked with in the Cup series (except when Knaus has been forced to serve the occasional suspension).

And even though Johnson and Knaus sometimes squabble petulantly on the radio, they continue to find ways to clear whatever hurdles the Chase might throw their way. And invariably they find a way to excel in the final 10 races.

True, though Johnson is tied for the series lead with Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch at four victories each, he hasn’t won since the Dover race in May. True, it’s been a lackluster summer for the No. 48 team, which hasn’t recorded a so-called podium finish since Johnson ran second to Earnhardt at Daytona in early July.

Johnson’s struggles this summer are part and parcel of a generally substandard performance from the entire Hendrick Motorsports organization. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has two wins this season, both on restrictor-plate tracks.

Jeff Gordon qualified for the Chase on points, without a victory in the first 26 races.

That’s why no one is talking about Jimmie Johnson’s chances for a record-tying seventh championship. But the absence of talk hasn’t dampened Johnson’s confidence.

“We’re getting stronger,” the six-time champ asserted after finishing ninth last Saturday at Richmond. “We’re not where we want to be as a company, but my guys have been working their guts out trying to get our cars where they need to be. Plus, we’re going to our 10 best tracks.

“Summer stretches have always been tough on the No. 48—I don’t know why. All the questions are being asked: ‘What’s wrong,’ ‘What’s up?’ And we get to those final 10 tracks, and things turn around for us. So, I’m looking forward to some of that and making our equipment a little bit better.

“I think we’re playing a little bit of catch-up right now, but I think it’s a hill we can get over the top of and be there when it counts at the end of the year.”

Still skeptical? Consider the facts. The Chase includes five 1.5-mile intermediate speedways. Three of Johnson’s four wins this season have come at 1.5-milers, including Kansas and Texas, both of which are in the Chase.

With a record 10 victories at Dover, Johnson is a clear favorite at the Monster Mile, the last track in the Chase’s Challenger Round, which will winnow the field from 16 drivers to 12. Johnson has taken the checkered flag eight times at Martinsville, the first track in the Eliminator Round, which will determine the four drivers eligible for the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The bottom line? Johnson needs only to look at the rest of the Sprint Cup schedule to feel energized, even if others are discounting his chances in the afterglow of a breakout summer for Joe Gibbs Racing and the reemergence of the Team Penske Fords.

“Truth be told, we haven’t run like we should over the summer months, so that’s why we’re not in the conversation,” Johnson told the NASCAR Wire Service. “But we’ve been here before. Final 10 races are good for us—good tracks.

“I think, in some scenarios, this championship battle (the elimination Chase format) is a bit more forgiving. If we were consistent through the first nine, (we’ll have) a chance to be in the final four. We have 10 more weeks to get our stuff straightened out and find the speed we need.”

Johnson’s two Chaser teammates, Earnhardt and Gordon, will be doing exactly the same thing. Over the past six races, Earnhardt has been the most consistent driver in the Hendrick stable, posting finishes of 11th or better in that stretch and most recently a fifth at Richmond.

In his first year with new chief Greg Ives, Earnhardt says that relationship has started to pay dividends.

“We’ll get better, you know,” Earnhardt said. “Even after this year and the year after that, I mean, we’re just going to keep getting better. He’s going to be a superstar… so I’m glad to be able to work with him, and once our relationship really gets some legs, we’re going to be great.  But we’re going to try to do it this year.

“We’ve got a lot of confidence, and I think our cars are getting better. We were kind of uncomfortable with where we were a couple weeks ago, but it’s getting there. The whole company is working their guts out, working really, really hard. Real proud of the effort and hopefully it’s going to pay off for us in this Chase.”

Gordon would like nothing better than to fill a hole in his Hall of Fame resume with a championship under the Chase format, but to do so, he’ll have to find more speed than he’s shown throughout the year—a problem common to all the Hendrick cars in the summer months.

“We’re behind—we know that,” Gordon said. “But there’s a lot of ways to make it to Homestead, and there’s a lot that can happen, and we’re working as hard as anybody to try to see what we can do better, learn from our competitors, and try to catch up, but we’re definitely playing catch up.

“I think Junior is probably the best in our stable right now and he proved that again (at Richmond), but we work hard together to try to improve for each of us, and if we continue to do that, we’ll make gains. There was a lot of pressure in this final season to make that Chase, so I’m glad we got that done.”

All four Hendrick drivers made the Chase last year, and all four fell out before the finale at Homestead.

Even though HMS hasn’t shown its strength in the summer, don’t expect history to repeat itself in 2015.

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