NASCAR: Is Jimmie out of contention?
CHARLOTTE ó Itís easy for outsiders to cross Jimmie Johnson off the list of title contenders. They donít work side by side with the five-time defending NASCAR champion every week, and have no idea just how hard it is to beat him.
Itís a whole different story, though, when those inside the NASCAR garage publicly dismiss him the way rival team owner Jack Roush did two weeks ago at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
ěYou canít expect to get a mulligan,î Roush said after Johnsonís 34th-place finish at Charlotte.
ěYouíll be very lucky if somebody will give you a chance to make up the whole race. I thought that Jimmie Johnson would be a factor in it and heís definitely going to have to stand in line and wait for the other folks in the top five to have problems for him to get back in it. He wonít race his way back in it. He wonít finish high enough above the top four or five cars to beat them on the racetrack. Heíll have to wait for them to have trouble I think.î
Johnson has indeed taken a tumble since his win three races ago at Kansas pushed him to third in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship standings. He had a hard wreck at Charlotte that cost him five spots in the standings, but as he headed to Talladega Superspeedway, where he had won in the spring, it was conceivable that heíd make up some ground.
Instead, Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. waited too long to make their move through the field, and Johnson finished 26th.
Heís now ranked seventh in the standings, 50 points behind leader Carl Edwards, with four races remaining in the Chase.
ěWe just keep grinding them out,î Johnson said after Talladega. ěWeíll just keep fighting. Every position counts. Every spot counts. And I want to finish as high as I can in the points. If it isnít the championship, I want to finish as high as I can possibly finish. So weíre going to keep fighting hard.î
Johnsonís been counted out before, and heís been counted out this year.
In last seasonís Chase, Denny Hamlin had him on the ropes until he coughed away the title in the final two races. Johnson, ignoring what Hamlin did each week, simply concentrated on his own performance and was in position to capitalize when Hamlin faltered.
This year has been below average by Johnsonís standards, and with just one win in the ěregular seasonî people were ready to write him off after a disappointing run at New Hampshire in Round 2 of the Chase.
Those same people sure looked silly a week later when a second-place finish at Dover moved him up five spots in the standings to fifth. Then his win at Kansas had the points lead well within reach.
Just like that, it slipped through his fingers, and his entire comeback came undone.
But his last three weeks should be evidence enough that it can all change in the blink of an eye.
ěIt can happen to any of us,î Edwards said. ěObviously, the more points we can get on the guys in the Chase the better, but itís obvious that could happen to anyone. He could go on a tear and be leading the points in three or four weeks, so I will never count him out.î
Up next is Martinsville Speedway, where Johnson is a six-time winner and, along with Hamlin, considered one of the best active drivers at the Virginia track. Heís got 17 top-10 finishes in 19 career starts, and had been nearly untouchable there since a 35th-place finish in his first career start at the track.
He was off a bit in the spring, with his 11th-place finish his worst at Martinsville since his 2002 debut. Johnson is returning to the track this weekend with the same chassis, and looking forward to the weekend.
ěQuirky tracks have always worked for me, and this track certainly is that,î he said. ěWhen I first came here, the first year or year and a half, there was no way I thought this track would be one that I liked. But in time, and in learning how to drive it, there is just one way to really get around here. And a lot of tracks have a lot of other options but thereís one very specific line you have to run and when a guy finds it, and he can set his car up to it, you go and go and go for years.î
Still, Roush wasnít so sure two weeks ago that anything matters from here on out for Johnson, particularly with the way the Roush Fenway Racing cars are running. Edwards and Matt Kenseth are ranked 1-2 in the standings, and next weekís race is at Texas, where Kenseth won in the spring.
ěWe are at the top of our game as far as our mile-and-a-half program,î Roush said. ěThereís other teams that have got good programs, but nobody has got a better mile-and-a-half program than us. In my 24 years, Iíve never had better cars for the championship stretch than we have got and we are anxious to see how itís going to work out.
ěI just think that the hard work everybodyís done is paying off, and we are getting what we deserve.î