Ryan: The curious case of Jimmie Johnson

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RICHMOND, Va. — He’s the top seed entering the Chase for the Sprint Cup! He’s a six-time series champion! He’s demonstrated an uncanny mastery for conquering the 10 tracks that determine the title in NASCAR’s premier series!

So, Jimmie Johnson clearly enters the 2015 playoffs as a clear-cut underdog.

Huh?

After stopping his No. 48 Chevrolet in the pits after the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway, Johnson climbed out of his car with a slight look of befuddlement.

It wasn’t because of the lack of news media – a whopping two reporters – who were seeking comment after a nondescript ninth-place finish.

It was a tacit acknowledgment that despite earning the Chase’s No. 1 ranking – by virtue of a quirky tiebreaker from having more second-place finishes than fellow four-win drivers Matt Kenseth (Saturday’s winner at RIR) and Kyle Busch – Johnson barely has merited consideration in his quest for a record-tying seventh championship.

Not when the Joe Gibbs Racing armada of Kenseth, Busch, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards had won seven of the past nine races and spent much of 400 laps at Richmond occupying the top four spots. 

The speculation over title favorites starts with those four Toyotas, touches on Joey Logano (the only driver to beat JGR since July) and defending series champion Kevin Harvick (who led the points much of the season) and ends with nary a mention of the most dominant driver of his generation.

“We’re not in the conversation,” Johnson said. “The last couple of months, we haven’t been in the position we want.

“We’ve been looking for speed for a couple of years now. We can race well and hold our own, and when we get to our better tracks, we seem to be able to figure out how to get to victory lane at the end of the day.”

This has been the most peculiar of regular seasons for the only NASCAR driver to qualify for every year of the Chase (12 seasons and counting).

Though he won four of the first 13 races, he hardly flaunted the lockdown dominance of his title campaigns. Most of the checkered flags (at Texas Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Dover International Speedway) came mostly because of solid racecraft by Johnson and sound strategy by crew chief Chad Knaus, who aggressively capitalized on his team earning a Chase berth in the season’s second race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

That win was among the rare times the fastest car clearly belonged to Johnson, whose deficiencies have been magnified over a nine-race stretch to conclude the regular season. Since a runner-up July 7 at Daytona International Speedway, Johnson has one top five and an average finish of 14.7.

He hasn’t led a lap since Daytona, and the two-month absence from first place is the longest of his Cup career.

Anyone else’s titles chances would be written off at this point. But every rival does so with Johnson at their own peril.

“I don’t count out Jimmie,” Denny Hamlin said. “No one ever will. You just have to see how this Chase goes.”

For Johnson, it always seems to go extraordinary well, regardless of how poorly he might have run before it. He had one top five in the final nine races of the regular season in 2006 and two in 2009 and ‘13 … he won the title each year.

“We’ve been here before,” he said. “We’ve had a summer slump many years, so it’s not a surprise to us.

“We’re getting ready to go to a lot of really good racetracks. That keeps us very optimistic. I just don’t know. It’s hard to really tell.”

The lack of certitude isn’t solely about a lack of results.

It’s as much a function of the Chase format in its second year of points resets and eliminations after every third race. The 2014 debut showed how it capriciously treated formidable championship contenders while an underwhelming but reliable entry such as Ryan Newman could survive and advance to the final round.

As much as JGR has dominated the narrative, Hamlin conceded its recent success means virtually nothing because “it’s a new season.” Winning guarantees a slot in the next round, but there still are only three available. The bulk of the advancement will be accomplished via posting solid results and avoiding disaster.

While inching closer and closer to a more traditional playoffs (through four overhauls in 12 years), NASCAR actually has re-emphasized the importance of consistency.

“That’s what this deal is all about,” Harvick said. “It’s really not about having the fastest cars week in and week out, it’s about capitalizing on situations.  The guy who makes the least amount of mistakes is going to be the one who keeps advancing.

“It’s not about stats or what’s pretty or not pretty, it’s about three weeks and making it to the next round. Three weeks, making it to the next round, trying to get yourself in position for (the season finale at) Homestead.”

Said Johnson: “You still need speed, but you don’t have to win until the end. You might need to win to move along there in the rounds depending on some bad races, but I think the way Ryan got to the final four last year showed a lot of us you don’t have to be set on kill the whole Chase.”

Though his Hendrick Motorsports team has been accused of playing possum in his previous title runs and experimenting with newfangled setups that are mothballed for the final 10 races, he insists that hasn’t been the case.

“We’re always trying to learn, but it’s not like we were sitting on something that we’re going to try or develop something different,” he said. “We were trying to get better.”

Can he improve over the final 10 races? In the marathon of a Sprint Cup season, it seems eminently achievable.

Consider the plight of JGR, which struggled for the first two months of this season. It then dominated the past two months.

But the season still won’t end for another two and a half months. That’s an eternity in NASCAR from which hope springs eternal.

“I feel like we’re going to be in the thick of it, but the championship isn’t decided until Homestead, so it’s hard to really get my head around,” Johnson said. “I’d have to put favorites on the Gibbs cars and certainly (Harvick).

“We’re just sitting there on that next tier down, and we’ve got to get a little bit better.”

A top seed minus the top speed.

It’s an oddly fitting reality for Johnson this season.