The Chase for the Sprint Cup is approaching. Jimmie Johnson, the six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, is searching for consistency.
Johnson is coming off of three straight rough races. After recording back-to-back 42nd-place finishes, the No. 48 team finished 14th at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. However, it is not the first time that the Hendrick Motorsports crew has struggled at this point in the season. Entering the Chase last year, Johnson had three consecutive events of 28th or worse – spanning from Bristol until Richmond. In the past, the same thing has happened to the team nearly every year.
“It’s no secret that the middle portion of the year has always been a challenge for the No. 48 team. At the start of the season and end of the season – a lot of those tracks are the same venues that we go to. The Chase era has been an advantage for us. The summer stretch has just been tough for us – it always has been. There have been years where we make it through similar than others, but this year – we have been as inconsistent as any other performance,” Johnson said on Friday morning.
“We want to stop that and start here with a very smooth weekend and successful weekend, and carry on to the Glen. Bristol is out there. That is a tough track for us. There are still a few challenges ahead, but literally – when the Chase starts – we roll into our 10 best tracks. We’ll try to maintain sanity until then. Obviously, we have to keep progressing our cars.”
The No. 48 Chevrolet has been known to have a rough stretch during the summer months, yet this year seems to be more consistent than year’s past. Through 20 events, his average finish is 13.9. Although that ranks sixth in the Cup Series, it is below his career-worst average finish of 13.6 in his rookie season back in 2002.
Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus, is attempting to lead the team back to championship form. But before they do that – the inconsistency must dissolve. The team has 12 top-10s this year, but six finishes of 23rd or worse.
“We are not running as well as we need to. I think everybody knows that. We have had some struggles this year. We’ve won a few races, which is great. But on a consistent level we are not as fast as what we want to be. Quite honestly I don’t think anybody is,” Knaus said.
“Well nothing matters leading into the Chase, it’s what happens once you get into the Chase obviously. Look momentum is a great thing. We all understand that. Momentum on your side is always good; it’s always good to have the sun on your face and the wind in your sails. Let’s be honest because everyone is always happier. But the fact of the matter is you can overcome anything if you have the right tools. That is what we are fighting for right now to make sure that when we show up in Chicago, Loudon and all those races that we have the proper race cars.”
Jimmie Johnson was coming off of back-to-back wins entering the Pocono 400. However, Johnson was taken out of contention early in the event after colliding with Marcos Ambrose on pit road.
Johnson was exiting his pit stall after racing his way into the top-10 when the caution came out on Lap 73. The No. 48 car received major damage to the right front quarter panel, and caused Johnson to make multiple trips back to pit road.
“I was scared to death I was going to hurt someone,” Johnson said. “We just went to work and do what the No. 48 does best and grind it out. We thought we had a shot at it. Chad had a great strategy, but that last set of tires was just way too tight and I couldn’t get it done.”
After all of the chaos, he was able to finish sixth after capturing the lead for a handful of laps during a green flag pit cycle as the race was winding down. Moreover, Johnson experienced some issues with the handling of his Chevrolet. With the high speeds at the Pocono Raceway, aerodynamics play a key role in attempting to keep up with the leaders.
“We took two (tires) and we were leaving pretty quick and Chad (Knaus) was spotting me out of the pit and took full responsibility for it. He didn’t know the No. 9 was ahead of us pulling in. He thought the No. 9 had left his pit box,” he said.
“We had some aero stuff to sort out. After the second pit stop working on it, the car was a lot better. I honestly forgot about it until I felt like we had a shot to win.”
Johnson remains fourth in the standings as he has all but secured a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. This was Johnson’s ninth top-10 of the 2014 season, and he is on pace to surpass 20 top-10s for the year for the 13th consecutive season.