CHICAGO — Once so dominant that haters complained he was ruining NASCAR, Jimmie Johnson now is overlooked and seemingly ordinary.
It was only three years ago that Johnson won his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup trophy, leaving him one shy of the sport’s all-time record that is shared by Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty.
Seven isn’t even a part of the conversation now with Johnson, who last won in March with a Superman logo on his car and a cape around his neck. Some people don’t think he’ll make it out of the first round of the playoffs — just like last year.
Johnson feels the vibe. That concerns him less than the fact he’s had five top-10 finishes in the last 19 races.
“I don’t like where we’re at,’’ he said Thursday matter-of-factly.
But Johnson is fine with who he is with, dispelling any thought that he should part with Chad Knaus, who has been his crew chief since Johnson’s rookie season in 2002.
“If we were being outrun by our teammates week in and week out and we weren’t the lead car at Hendrick, we would probably have to look real hard at the relationship between me and Chad, but with that not being the case, we’re just frustrated,’’ Johnson said.
“The things that are seen and heard and the unhappiness is due to the competitive spirit and fire in both of us. We don’t want to be in the position that we’re in.’’
It’s not just Johnson, it’s Hendrick Motorsports, which is mired in a 21-race winless streak heading into Sunday’s race at Chicagoland Speedway. The last time Hendrick went that long between victories was 1993-94 — before rookie Chase Elliott was born. He arrived in 1995.
Hendrick cars have struggled to lead laps, score top 10s and be a factor this season. With only Johnson and Elliott in the Chase, it represents the fewest number of teams Hendrick has had in the playoffs since 2010.
What’s worse for the organization is that other Chevrolet teams are beating it with Hendrick equipment. Hendrick engines power cars for Stewart-Haas Racing (three cars in the Chase) and Chip Ganassi Racing (two cars in the Chase). Stewart-Haas Racing also gets its chassis from Hendrick.
“They take our best equipment, that’s part of the deal, fully refined and what we’re racing, and their engineering staff gets to make it better,’’ Johnson said of Stewart-Haas Racing. “Same thing is going on at (Joe Gibbs Racing). They’re providing all the equipment to the 78 car. They’re smart people and are like ‘Oh, that’s pretty good, I’ll tweak this and tweak that and make it better.’
“I understand the business dynamic, but it’s tricky and it hurts to be outrun by somebody in your equipment, Ganassi as well. From a business standpoint it’s something that we have to do.’’
The difference is at Joe Gibbs Racing, they’re still fast.
As Johnson and his team have tried to overcome the deficiencies, they’ve made mistakes, putting them further behind.
A slow pit stop at Michigan hurt him. Johnson admitted making a mistake and crashing at Darlington. Three times in the last seven races, Johnson has been called for speeding on pit road. That’s not the sign of a championship-caliber team.
“I feel like it’s just trying so hard,’’ Johnson said. “Getting back to a smooth rhythm, identifying with 100 percent for myself and the effort I’m putting out.
“There’s nothing worse than getting passed and going backwards. It might seem like somebody is just letting off the gas and they don’t want to go up there and race, (but) you’re dead sideways in the car and uncomfortable and hanging on. It’s frustrating. You’re mad. You’re trying to drive through things and so you spin out.’’
Or make a mistake on pit road.
“You come to pit road and you have a chance to make up some spots and (are) pushing too hard … and get in trouble,’’ Johnson said. “I feel like we’ve had to operate and push ourselves really hard since the start of the season to get the wins and be where we want to be and that leads to mistakes.’’
And it’s why some are not expecting Johnson to go far in the Chase, especially with all five Toyotas so strong. This is as anonymously as Johnson has entered the Chase in years.
Former teammate Kyle Busch, though, remains wary of Johnson.
“You can’t ever discount him and Chad and what they’ve been able to accomplish in this sport over the last decade,’’ Busch said. “So that’s why you always put them in there.’’
But that would be the only reason to do so.