Make no mistake, NASCAR faithful. Jimmie Johnson has had a great track record as the five-time defending NASCAR champion. Sure, he’s not the most charismatic guy in the world and not necessarily the most popular driver on the circuit, but one cannot look at his track record and not respect what he’s accomplished.
Cale Yarborough won three straight championships, but Jimmie’s won five in a row at stock car racing’s top level. Pretty impressive stuff. Oh sure, the naysayers will claim Jimmie’s championships are a bit different than Cale’s as Yarborough never had to go throw a Chase system, but in the modern era, with the new-fangled championship playoff, one has to give Jimmie credit for finding a way to beat the system not once, not twice, but five times!
Last year, the No. 48 team showed some kinks in their armor, most notably on pit road. However, after Denny Hamlin’s epic failure to put the El Cajon, Calif. native away after having him on the ropes resulted in Johnson hoisting a fifth straight championship trophy high above his head, many assumed Johnson would be the guy to beat.
Heck, going into the Chase, many penciled in Johnson as the favorite. But if last year showed kinks in the armor, this year’s practically showing gunshot wounds piercing the armor by comparison.
Johnson’s Chase started off on the wrong foot by running out of fuel at Chicagoland, yet still finishing 10th, and a bad day at New Hampshire resulted in an ignominious 18th-place finish. However, there seemed to be a new dawn following the races at Dover and Kansas where Johnson finished second and dominated Kansas for the win. But the next two weeks proved that was a false dawn, of sorts.
Charlotte, a track that has been very good to Johnson over the years, seemed to be giving him another good race. But with less than 20 laps to go, in a plot twist of Shakespearian proportions, Johnson’s car spun after getting loose underneath Ryan Newman. From there, it went horribly wrong as when Johnson tried to save the car, the radial tires bit the track hard, sending Johnson head-on into the turn 2 wall.
The hit was eerily similar to what killed Dale Earnhardt Sr., but thankfully, by the grace of God, Johnson was able to walk away unhurt. Johnson now sat 35 markers out of the top spot with five races to go. He was basically the same distance back in 2006 with the same amount of races left in the season under the old points system and came back to win the championship.
Many reasoned since he won at Talladega in the spring, surely to goodness he would get back on track, right?
Wrong. Johnson was barely a factor and almost an afterthought Sunday, finishing 26th, actually losing more ground to current points leader Carl Edwards, now sitting 50 points back.
Which begs the question, has the time come for Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus to hit the red button lettered “P-A-N-I-C?” Granted, Johnson’s hopes for a six-pack took a huge hit this past Sunday, but it’s hard to count a guy out of the Chase who has won the last five championships. Plus, he has won at each track left on the schedule.
But the fact remains that he’s in uncharted waters now. He’s never been this far back in a Chase ever in his career with so little time left. The real question of the day for fans to ponder is could this be one mountain that “Mr. Five-Time” might not be able to conquer?
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