CHICAGO – Jimmie Johnson was back to his old self Sunday night at Chicagoland Speedway.
And, no, "old" is not the operable word considering that Johnson turns 38 on Tuesday. But still, following a four-race skid, Johnson's fifth-place finish was his first top-five since July in the Brickyard 400.
The result was not a layup. Johnson suffered two substantial miscues in the pits. He entered pit road after establishing a three-second lead on Lap 75 only to have a loose lugnut knock him back to fifth. A broken jack resulted in an uncharacteristic 24-second stop on Lap 149, which mired the No. 48 Chevy 22 spots in the field.
Over the next 114 laps, the five-time champion overcame those adversities, proving again his ability to persevere when the Chase to the Sprint Cup is on the line.
"Just a great effort. You know, we never gave up, just got to keep working through things," Johnson said following the race. "That second-to-last run, we had a very fast race car and got up to the front and thought I had a chance to win this thing, but that last run we just didn't have what we needed and came home in fifth."
Not long after the race, Johnson tweeted: "Today/Tonight had its challenges but we are off to a great start in the #Chase. #6Pack #Believe"
Yes, Johnson was relieved to put the previous four races behind him. He had led the point standings after 23 of the first 25 races and extended his lead to 75 points over Clint Bowyer by Indy. But when the best result Johnson could muster in that four-race stretch was 28th, people were beginning to question what was going on.
The Anybody But JJ haters alleged Johnson was sandbagging to help his Hendrick Motorsports teammates - Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. - gain access to the Chase. The pundits, however, simply wrote the slump off to crew chief Chad Knaus' annual testing session, where the No. 48 crew establishes a comfortable position in the point standings, then uses the cushion to test out the latest innovations for the playoffs.
And then there were the casual observers that wondered whether Johnson was distracted while he and his wife awaited the birth of their second daughter, who arrived Sept. 6. Johnson missed practice and qualifying at Richmond, then finished 40th.
Before track activities began at Chicagoland on Friday, Johnson was "optimistic" but acknowledged, "The last four or five weeks have been awfully hard on the 48. When I look at Richmond, Bristol, you can look at our stats in general. Those aren't strong tracks for us, so I don't read too much into those. Plus, there's no track like either of those in the Chase. When I look at Atlanta, we were competitive and got crunched up on a restart. I look at Michigan, we were way fast and had an engine -- which is kind of rare. Then Pocono, (we were) leading, then blew a right front.
"With the Chase having five mile-and-a-half tracks in it, I look at the speed we've been able to have even though the finishes aren't there and feel very comfortable about where we are. I would love to have more momentum without a doubt coming into the Chase, but we don't. But I think we're a strong enough team where that won't prevent us from or hamper our ability to win the championship."
Johnson's fifth-place finish in the Chase opener places him third in the standings. He trails second-place Kyle Busch by three points and has to make up 11 points to catch leader Matt Kenseth. Certainly, Johnson's greatest competition outside of his Hendrick teammates will come from the aforementioned Joe Gibbs Racing duo. Kenseth and Busch are formidable opponents. Between the two drivers, they have wins at eight of the final nine races in the Chase - including two of the tracks from earlier this season: Texas and Kansas.
But Johnson is right. He has every reason to be optimistic. No one else on tour can boast 34 career wins earned on the next eight tracks. Certainly, Talladega and Homestead could prove to be Johnson's Achilles' heel, but even so, his average finish over the next nine races is 10.12.
It would be wrong to characterize Johnson as the comeback kid, but there's no doubt that this crew is still one of the best at not only battling adversity but persevering when times get tough.
When the Sprint Cup tour roles into Homestead-Miami Speedway, no one will remember Johnson's wobbly run in August. The No. 48 Lowe's crew will be in the same position that has made them the best in NASCAR - battling for the title.