If only most NASCAR drivers had Jimmie Johnson’s problems.
From the outside, the two-time defending NASCAR Sprint Series champion appears to be in the middle of another spectacular season. He heads to this week’s race in California fourth in season points, has wins at Indianapolis and Phoenix, and will clinch a spot in the playoffs if he manages to keep his No. 48 out of trouble on Sunday.
Yet to hear the perfectionist in Johnson talk, 2008 has been a frustrating mix of hit-and-miss efforts. While he remains in position to become the second driver in series history to win three straight points titles, Johnson admits his Hendrick Motorsports team is still trying to figure out the Car of Tomorrow.
“Some weekends I feel like we have a dominant car and other weekends I feel like we’re a fifth-place car or even a 10th-place car,” Johnson said. “With the strong team we have, we seem to be able to rally back and get finishes out of it. So I still think that we are maybe behind.”
While Johnson and superstar teammates Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are all likely to make the Chase for the championship, all three have spent most of the season chasing series leader Kyle Busch and red-hot Carl Edwards.
“In different weeks, the 88 car (Earnhardt) has been the car, the 24 (Gordon) was the car early, we were, and it’s just tough to really say where we’re at,” Johnson said.
Blame it on the bulky and balky COT, which remains a puzzle to Johnson’s team, particularly crew chief Chad Knaus. Considered one of the top minds in the series, Knaus has been hamstrung by the new car.
“It’s been tough for him, and it’s been a huge, huge challenge for him,” Johnson said. “But more importantly the go-to moves that we’ve always had with the old car do not work with the COT. And to kind of retrain (Chad’s) brain and look at things in a different way, that is the hardest part for him.”
The problems with the new car surfaced almost immediately. Johnson’s team arrived in Las Vegas in March thinking it had a decent setup. He ended up 29th.
“The latest, greatest moves and the stuff we thought was going to work based on the old car, and we were not even in the same race,” he said. “We were out there (in a) seven-cylinder class it seemed like. That has been the hardest part to find out where to work and that’s what we’ve done all season long.”
Even when he hasn’t had the best car, Johnson has usually found a way to be competitive. Sometimes it’s on pit strategy. Sometimes it’s on luck. Sometimes it’s on the experience garnered from having one of the series’ top driver-crew chief combinations.
That doesn’t mean it’s been fun. Funny how much easier racing is when you have the fastest car on the track. It’s happened a few times this year — at Indianapolis in particular — but the recipe for consistency remains a mystery.
“There is not anyone smarter than Chad, but the way he has thought about setting these cars up and what we have done in the past doesn’t work with this new car,” he said. “We are trying to find the right direction in the right areas to turn him loose and let him work.”
Though Johnson thinks his team is “close” to getting it right, he knows there isn’t some magic button Knaus will find that will put Johnson back at the front of the pack.
“There are not any big areas anymore,” he said. “It’s a lot of small areas and we are now, I feel, getting the rhythm of this car and understanding what to work on.”
A little rhythm could go a long way toward Johnson making inroads on Busch and Edwards, who have combined for more than half of the Sprint Cup wins this year.
Busch and Edwards are also developing a little rivalry, particularly after both were put on probation for six races for bumping on the cooldown lap after Saturday’s race at Bristol. Edwards had won by nudging Busch out of the way with 30 laps to go.
Johnson called the pass “just good racing” and doesn’t think either driver will let the rivalry take his focus off the championship. If anything, it’s just another reason to stoke the competitive fire.
“As the Chase gets closer, everybody that has a shot at this thing is going to find ways to motivate themselves and areas they can potentially play mind games in, or be out on the track and try to intimidate someone,” he said. “That stuff is just part of any championship battle.”
It’s a battle Johnson has won the last two years. Making it three straight will be difficult, but with a Chase schedule littered with tracks he’s done well at, Johnson remains optimistic he could make history.
“I feel like we are one of the guys to be considered a favorite in the championship and look forward to getting started,” he said.