KANSAS CITY, Kan.—Jimmie Johnson doesn’t seem worried, but maybe he should be.
True, the six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion had no trouble advancing from the Challenger Round to the Contender Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
True, Johnson posted finishes of 12th, fifth and third in the first three Chase races, at Chicagoland, New Hampshire and Dover.
But it’s also true that Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet hasn’t been able to keep up with the speed horses in the Chase, namely the No. 24 Chevrolet of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, the Team Penske Fords of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano and the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet of Kevin Harvick.
And it’s true that neither Johnson nor 48/88 shop mate Dale Earnhardt Jr. has led a lap in the Sprint Cup Series since the August race at Michigan nearly seven weeks ago.
Accordingly, it’s fair to say there’s an apparent disconnect between what Johnson is saying in his question-and-answer sessions with reporters and what’s happening on the race track.
When Johnson met with the media on Friday at Kansas Speedway, he spoke with optimism about the tracks in the Contender Round—Kansas, Charlotte and Talladega.
“I’m ready to get going,” Johnson asserted, prior to the Contender Round’s first race on Sunday at Kansas (2 p.m. ET on ESPN). “These three tracks should be a lot of fun. The first two, I feel that we really have a good chance. We have a good chance at all three of winning, but the first two would make the experience of the third race of the Contender Round much more enjoyable.”
In other words, Johnson doesn’t want to go to the crapshoot at Talladega having to post a high finish in order to advance to the Eliminator Round.
But is winning this week a realistic possibility for the No. 48 team, especially in light of what happened on Friday afternoon? And on Saturday?
Johnson spun his car during his second attempt in the first round of Friday’s knockout qualifying and flat-spotted his tires, ending his prospects of making the top 24 and advancing to the second round.
He’ll start Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 from 32nd on the grid, with a lot of ground to make up. But if Johnson was looking for encouragement from Saturday’s first practice, he didn’t get it. Fighting the handling of his car in cooler temperatures, Johnson posted the 17th fastest lap late in the session, on the 24th of his 25 practice laps.
In afternoon practice, in warmer conditions that more closely resembled what drivers will face on Sunday, Johnson continued to flounder and finished 21st on the speed chart.
With one more title, Johnson will tie legends Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, who share the series record with seven championships each.
But if Johnson hopes to be a serious threat, he’ll have to find the speed that in past years has propelled him to the top of the standings during NASCAR’s 10-race playoff.
In years past, the No. 48 team would have shown its strength by now. But in 2014, with eliminations looming in every third race, we’re still waiting for Johnson to show up.
And the clock is ticking.
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