Jimmie Johnson was smiling, being his typical friendly, easy-going self, while answering reporters’ questions at Indianapolis Motor Speedway Saturday morning.
But far from side-stepping or making excuses for his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team’s current season winless streak, the seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion candidly spoke about how much he misses Victory Lane and has, genuinely, never been more motivated to raise another trophy.
Hoisting the hardware is something Johnson has done repeatedly here at Indy. His four victories are twice as many as any other driver in the field for Sunday’s Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard (1 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
He won Indianapolis in 2006, back-to-back in 2008-09 and then again in 2012. Only five-time winner Jeff Gordon has more victories here. Johnson finished runner-up in 2013 and was racing for the win last year when his Chevy suffered an oil leak and Johnson crashed out with two laps remaining.
“It is a very difficult track and it took me quite a few years to get the right rhythm and figure it out,’’ Johnson said. “It is a very unique track, like Dover and like Martinsville. Some of those challenging and unique tracks I’ve just always taken to and have had good luck and success at. So, Indy now fits into that category. And a lot like Martinsville, my first few trips there, there is no way I thought I would win. And then once I got it, it started to come.
“So, this could be a very big turnaround race for us. I definitely believe that and feel it. We qualified well here last year and race well here and had a shot to win if it wasn’t for the oil leak. I think the No. 78 (Martin Truex Jr.) and the No. 18 (Kyle Busch) were the class of the field and we were in that next group. So, if we do our part I think we can have a shot at the end.”
Contending for a win this week would indicate a significant upshift for Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet team. This has been an uncharacteristic season filled with frustration and disappointment for the 83-race winner and future NASCAR Hall of Famer.
Johnson’s last win was June 4, 2017 at Dover International Speedway – 49 races ago. He has never gone a full season without a win. In fact, he’s never had a season without multiple wins – two victories in 2011 is his smallest single season trophy haul in 17 years at the Cup level.
But through the first 25 races of 2018, Johnson has eight top-10s and two top-fives. His best showing is a third place at Bristol in April.
Chase Elliott is the only member of Johnson’s four-car Hendrick team to have reached Victory Lane (his first career win came at Watkins Glen last month).
Austin Dillon won the season-opening Daytona 500, leading only the last lap. Those are the only points-paying wins for Chevrolet in 2018, but that’s not to say the make hasn’t been close and shown significant can-do of late. The new Camaro body has been a learning curve, but there are signs of promise.
A three-time winner in 2017, Kyle Larson has five runner-up finishes and led eight races in the No. 42 Chevrolet this season. Elliott has four finishes of third or better in addition to his win.
“So, there are plenty of takeaways and plenty of things that we learned,’’ Johnson said of his season. “Kind of the over-arching thing for me is compounding mistakes. People make mistakes, but let’s not make a bad situation worse. And sadly, we were kind of in a position that we weren’t going to finish that race with the oil pump scenario [at Darlington last week].
“So, that does take a little bit off of it. But, we just need to stop making mistakes. I think I was in a position and drove outside of my means and drove over the 100 percent level because I knew I had such a good car. And I’m so eager to get back to winning and get back to leading laps that I just tried too hard.”
And, Johnson added, “We’re all human, you know? And I’ve made mistakes even when I’ve been at my peak. I’ve made a mistake and then I’ve also made compounding mistakes. It’s all part of it.
“But as you (media) all know and we all know each other pretty well and could imagine just the frustration of not being where I want to be. And then, maybe relating back to your own things in life, when something’s not going right you just try harder and harder. We’re all human. And its just part of it. So, I just need to stop doing that (laughs). Easier said than done.”
And although Indianapolis is a notoriously demanding track – with only five repeat winners in 24 races – it’s good vibes and fond memories for Johnson and he’ll be riding that good juju this week.
“I couldn’t even put into words what it would mean and do,’’ Johnson said of scoring the win on Sunday. “We’ve worked so hard and have had some good moments along the way that could have turned into great moments. And, mistakes on my behalf or the team or whatever it might be; bad luck, misfortune, we’ve just not been able to capitalize on opportunities that have been there. Plus, we’ve had a tough year.
“So, it’s been extremely frustrating and extremely difficult to live through, but we are all still very eager to turn it around and know that we will. And, a win is the way to turn it around. So, we’ve seen this team get hot at times and we’ve been unstoppable.
“A win would be the starting point of that. So, I’m very hopeful we can get that done this weekend.”