With Win, Johnson's Back
He didn't take the lead in the Sprint Cup standings, didn't even move into second, but he didn't need to. Winning at Kansas Speedway in such dominating fashion was plenty good enough. And in the end, it was one of those afternoons that evoked the feeling of inevitability that's loomed over NASCAR's premier series for much of the past five years, one that grew stronger and stronger with each circuit the No. 48 car made around the track.
Jimmie Johnson is back. As if he ever left.
Two weeks ago he seemed so vulnerable, limping home after a poor finish at New Hampshire that left him 10th in points, his lowest Chase standing ever. Even more worrisome, he had gone a full year with only a single race win, that coming way back at Talladega in the spring, and was showing very little of the killer instinct that had left opponents trembling and mistake-prone over the final stages of playoffs past. For the first time, his championship reign looked shaky. For the first time, you wondered if someone else would be standing on that stage in South Florida in late November, clutching that sterling silver cup.
It was only natural, given the presence of this new points format that no one really had a feel for, given Johnson's seeming inability to unleash a tsunami of race victories he had used to inundate challengers so often in the past. This wasn't about being a "naysayer," or doubting the abilities of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, or considering the No. 48 team out of it, or anything as simple-minded as that. It was about knowing how Johnson has won championships in the past, seeing his results at a time of year when he's usually at his best and wondering if the man they call Five-Time (for now) had enough around him to seize title No. 6.
Sunday, he answered with an emphatic yes. This was vintage Jimmie Johnson, the driver at his most intimidating, leading 197 laps -- the next-best driver led just 26 -- and winning restart after restart at the end to secure a 55th career victory, which tied him with Rusty Wallace for eighth on NASCAR's all-time list. Combined with a runner-up finish at Dover last Sunday, he's now made up 25 points in two weeks, crawling to within four of series leader Carl Edwards. That the breakthrough comes at Kansas is significant; last year a second-place finish here propelled him into the points lead, and in 2008 a victory in the Sunflower State proved a stepping-stone toward the title.
"I'm just really proud of these guys," car owner Rick Hendrick said. "A lot of people had said the magic was gone, and you look at Dover and then you look at this race today, and they just put their heads down when it counts and get the job done."
As dominating as Johnson was Sunday, there were still moments when it felt like it might get away. After a green-flag pit stop on lap 207, Knaus asked Johnson to start saving gas, believing the No. 48 car to be more than four laps short of its fuel window. A caution allowed Johnson to come in for fuel, but as the race wore on Knaus began to worry about tire wear, given that they had taken two earlier in the event to grab track position. With Johnson cruising out front, they made the decision to come in for right-side tires during a debris caution. Johnson restarted third, muscled back ahead and had more than enough to hold off Kasey Kahne in a green-white-checkered finish prompted by teammate Jeff Gordon's blown engine.
"Let's drink some champagne!" Johnson exulted over the radio after taking the checkered flag, and with good reason. The victory was only Johnson's second since winning at Dover the second week of last year's Chase, and the 21-race drought since Talladega matched his longest since a similar gap between Dover in the fall of his rookie season of 2002, and Charlotte the following spring.
"I look at this year, and there's probably three or four opportunities to win that come to mind that we just didn't take advantage of, and that's on everybody's back," Johnson said. "I've messed up, we've had pit road issues, we've had a lot of little things go wrong, and we've had a lot of second place finishes that should have been wins. The competitor in all of us, we've known that we've been close. So yeah, we want to win and we want a lot more wins to start the Chase for bonus points, but it's been more about missed opportunity than really a number of races that we haven't won."
Sunday, it all went right. The No. 48 pit crew was flawless, to the point where Johnson and Knaus each praised them over the radio after the race. The pit calls worked, and the car was unstoppable. It was all a stark contrast from the opening Chase event at Chicagoland, where Johnson and Knaus stumbled over their old nemesis -- fuel mileage -- and slid back to 10th. And it was a huge improvement from New Hampshire, where Johnson fell back in traffic, suffered damage after late-race contact with Kyle Busch, and wound up 18th. After that event, a still-positive Johnson said his team needed top-three finishes to get back into it. So far, he's two-for-two.
"I don't think anybody counted him out," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "I think the media made a big deal out of the runs he was having, and they were a long ways out of the lead in the points, but it's still wide open, and who knows what anybody can accomplish with just a few races left. But that's a great race team. You don't win five in a row on luck, you know? You don't just trip over the championship trophy, you do it because you're great. And they'll win the championship this year if anybody doesn't get going."
Indeed, both Edwards and Kevin Harvick needed big turnarounds over the course of Sunday's race to keep Johnson from taking the points lead outright, something that would have sent a shiver down many a spine in the Kansas grandstand. But Jeff Gordon, whom many thought would contend for this title, blew an engine and fell to 10th. Tony Stewart, winner of the first two Chase races, had another tough day and slipped to seventh. Opportunity is presenting itself, and as usual, Johnson is putting himself in position to take advantage.
Toward that end, Sunday felt like old times, with the No. 48 team making a familiar statement at a familiar point in the Chase. "We're very excited going forward into the remaining mile-and-a-half tracks, starting with Charlotte next week, and we'll just keep fighting," Johnson said. "This thing isn't going to be over until Homestead. We came a long way from the opening race, or New Hampshire for that matter, but there's still a lot of racing left."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.