Back in the depths of winter, burdened by a blown engine and a 42nd-place finish in the Daytona 500 and a subsequent points penalty (that later disappeared), Jimmie Johnson was looking very un-Jimmie-Johnson-like.
Six races into the schedule, he had recovered to sit 10th in Sprint Cup points but still was wrestling with a long winless streak and driving under a cloud of sorts as many observers began to wonder what had happened to the guy who won five straight championships.
Don’t look now, but he’s back.
In the past five points races, Johnson has had four top-six runs, including Hendrick Motorsports’ landmark 200th victory in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. Then he raced in a class virtually by himself last weekend in winning the Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, site of Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600.
After the All-Star win, Johnson talked of winning more championships and underlined the fact that he hasn’t backed away from the idea of eventually reaching eight titles, an achievement that would shove him past Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty, who have seven championships each.
“We are really pleased with where our cars are right now,” Johnson said Thursday. “I have been sitting up here telling all of you that we are close and it is coming and look at the laps led and all that stuff. I’m glad to be able to back up what I have been talking about over these last few months.”
A confident Jimmie Johnson. A frightening thing, possibly, for the competition.
“It really just boils down to the hard work that has come through the engine shop, chassis shop, our engineering staff and the crew chiefs,” Johnson said. “We have a better product this year. We have been able to be close to victory lane a few times so far this year, and then we got it done the last two weeks.
“Obviously, winning during the All-Star race is very helpful. It’s a great starting point to come back with. We are excited to get on the track today and through the course of the weekend. We feel like we will be a threat for the win.”
Johnson has a splendid record at CMS, with six victories and 14 top 10s in 21 races. No one has done it better. Retired drivers Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip also won six times at CMS.
Team owner Rick Hendrick and many of those who accompanied him along the ride to 200 Sprint Cup wins celebrated the achievement Tuesday night with a big party that featured country singer Brad Paisley. That was large fun, Johnson said, but stressed that the focus remains on what’s ahead.
“[It was] just a cool, cool night this week, [but] we are back to business and that high will linger,” Johnson said. “But Rick is Rick, and he will be focused on winning more races and trying to win a championship. His first goal is to get all four cars in the Chase and then go for the championship. I’m sure we will be reminded of that here before long.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.