It’s a foregone conclusion, isn’t it?
Jimmie Johnson will win one of the next 19 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races — guaranteed. Right?
Since the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup was instituted in 2004, Johnson is the only driver to qualify for each of the 10 playoffs that have determined the champion of NASCAR’s foremost series.
Not once in his 12 previous full years in Sprint Cup racing has Johnson gone more than 12 races into a season without winning. If he doesn’t get a victory in Saturday night’s Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, it will be only the second time in the Chase era he has failed to win before the ninth event of a season.
With that in mind, Johnson is right to stay the course, to approach this year with the same methodical excellence that has carried him to 66 victories and six championships — right?
Yes, we have a new system for qualifying for the Chase and determining a champion, but No. 48 team’s old approach should still work — shouldn’t it?
Johnson is convinced it will.
“I haven’t felt any pressure with the new format yet,” Johnson said Friday, three days before the rain-delayed Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway was finally run.
“Maybe I’m naive or stupid or something else, but the season takes on so many different changes, and I feel like we’ve had a few looks here recently at a victory, and I feel like it’s coming and hope that it’s coming soon, so that I don’t have to answer the question.”
Johnson’s approach this year hasn’t changed with a championship format that has shifted the balance much more heavily toward winning races and less toward accumulating points.
“Our goal has been to run in the top five,” Johnson explained. “And we’ve felt like, if you run in the top five, you’ll have opportunities to win races. I’ve been able to win 66 races that way — and six championships.
“So, I don’t feel like I need to change my viewpoint on winning races and trying to transfer into the Chase. If there’s a race or two to go, and I don’t have a victory, it’s definitely going to change my opinion then. But I’ve built so much over the last 13 years with a certain mind-set that myself and the team, we’re just not in the position to change that mind-set yet.”
Three days later came another Sprint Cup race. Three days later came another problem for Johnson and the No. 48 team.
Johnson started 16th at Texas, in the outside lane, and after the race went green, he fell behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who qualified 19th. As he roared through the tri-oval for the first time at speed, the left tires of Earnhardt’s clipped the soggy infield grass.
What happened in the next microsecond ruined the race for Johnson.
“When Junior went through the grass, it kicked up all this debris and mud,” Johnson said. “It ripped the windshield and ripped the left front.”
Johnson came to pit road repeatedly under caution, and his crew worked feverishly to remove the debris from the grille of the No. 48 Chevrolet. The problem appeared manageable — before Johnson cut a tire later in the race and lost three laps on pit road. He finished 25th and dropped to seventh in the series standings, 31 points behind leader Jeff Gordon.
“It was a day of bad luck,” Johnson said. “We had a fast race car, so there was a little (silver) lining in it, but it was a terrible finish.”
As Johnson is learning this season, bad luck sometimes matters a lot more than fast cars. On March 23, he had a win in the bag at Fontana, Calif., until he blew a tire with seven laps left. He led 296 laps at Martinsville a week later, but Kurt Busch passed him for the victory with 10 laps to go.
Nevertheless, Johnson is wise to be confident. It would be unreasonable to think a driver who wins races at a clip better than once in every seven starts could be shut out for the first 26 races of a season.
But, at some point, Johnson’s streak of making Chases will end. At some point, his winning percentage will decline, as it has for every other driver with significant tenure in the sport.
But it won’t be this year — will it?