Having gone from a winless driver to a winner of two races in a row, Jimmie Johnson no longer looks like a struggling reigning series champion. Suddenly, he looks completely capable of winning a record-tying seventh title.
Don’t be surprised if he reinforces that new-fangled notion on Sunday at Pocono Raceway where he comes in as defending champion of the Pocono 400 and winner of three races overall at the often-precarious “Tricky Triangle” – the race track with only three turns, virtually no banking and plenty of history.
Johnson’s personal Pocono history is a very good read. In addition to winning there in June 2013 he swept the track’s two races in 2004, his third full-time season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Overall at Pocono he has an average finish of 8.8 across his 24 starts with a 109.3 Driver Rating; both statistics are series-bests. In addition, he holds the track qualifying record of 180.545 mph.
Two weeks ago after breaking through with his first 2014 win at the Coca-Cola 600, Johnson talked optimistically about both Dover International Speedway – where he won this past Sunday – and Pocono, seeing the tracks as potential places to build momentum.
Johnson, appropriately, is the last driver to win three consecutive races – back in 2007 when he won four consecutive. He also won three straight in 2004.
OK, so we know Jimmie Johnson likes Pocono. But just as important is the fact that his crew chief Chad Knaus shares that affection.
“I think we’re seeing the fruit of a lot of people’s labor right now at the race track, and we’re definitely looking forward to getting to Pocono,” Knaus said. “I’ve said it time and time again, Pocono is one of my favorite race tracks. I think it’s a lot of fun. It’s very difficult. So from a driver standpoint, this is definitely a tough race track … it’s definitely difficult [for a crew chief] so I’m looking forward to getting there.
“We’ve worked really hard [to start winning again]. The one thing I’m really impressed with at Hendrick Motorsports is when we do get behind, which we feel like we’ve been just a pinch behind this year, everybody digs down really, really deep and they work hard, from the pit crew, from the guys that hang the bodies to the guys that build the chassis to the guys that build the engines … they try to find an advantage. When we do finally start to hit our stride, all those things that everybody worked on start to culminate, and we can get out there and really start to make things happen.”
Added Johnson: “We can get on a roll. We’ve got some good tracks ahead for us. I think that tracks really build momentum for teams and drivers … Pocono is Chad’s favorite race track, and I think you can look ahead at the summer months and see who historically runs well at different tracks and kind of pick your favorites. It certainly has been that way for us. The tracks we’ve been bad at, we’ve gone there and been embarrassed by our performance, and then the tracks that are good to us still have been good to us.”
Johnson became season’s third two-time winner this past weekend, joining Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano in what is obviously preferred status; all three have clinched spots in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup … sort of. They still must fulfill two more requirements between now and the Sept. 14 Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway:
• They must finish the first 26 races of the season in the top 30 of the series points;
• They must attempt to qualify for each of the 26 races.
Sixteen spots are available for the Chase, with race winners getting first dibs, provided they fulfill all the qualification requirements. If there are less than 16 different winners, remaining berths will be based on the series standings after the first 26 races. Two weeks ago, the six-time champion was on the outside looking in. Now he’s where he’s spent much of the last 10 years: at the summit, looking down – and looking ominous.