MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Jimmie Johnson has gone from dominating NASCAR to watching others do it.
Johnson won the last of his unprecedented five consecutive Sprint Cup championships in 2010. But he hasn't won in his last 11 races and has visited Victory Lane just once in his last 39 starts. That from a guy who has won once for every 6.7 career starts.
Johnson even went winless last year at Martinsville Speedway, where he won six times in 10 races from 2004-09. But the drought isn't really what bothers him.
"What messes with my head is when I miss a chance to win," he said, noting five or six missed opportunities. "When you run 15th all day long and finish second, you leave the track knowing you got more than you should have. The days that you lead the most laps, and dominate a race and come home second, those sting. I think back to Dover last year (when he was beaten by Kurt Busch on the final two restarts). That one stings."
Mistakes he and his team have made have been especially difficult to reconcile.
"I didn't make those in years past, or the team didn't make them," he said. "There are some things that boiled down to strategy and others down to restarts that have been on me; and some other issues in between."
The words of Jeff Gordon, a four-time champion and Hendrick Motorsports teammate, resonate with Johnson.
"When he won 13 races or something like that in a year, he said he won every race he should have, and then some that he shouldn't have," Johnson said. "We need to win the races we should be able to win and that we have a shot to win."
Johnson's best finish this year is second to Tony Stewart at Las Vegas. And there, he said, no excuse is required.
"I felt like I had a great car. Nobody had anything for that No. 14 car (Stewart) on restarts," he said.
Truth be told, Johnson said, his racing career has taught him to weather a dry spell.
"Growing up in racing, I didn't have this kind of success until I got to the Cup level. It's not that I was ever happy with not winning, but you just learn how to deal with your emotions and you learn how to learn from experiences and get better and stronger at it," he said. "But nothing is eating at me. Right now I'm very optimistic about our season."
Carl Edwards burst into laughter when he heard Johnson's one victory in 39 races had become a hot topic.
"He hasn't won in 11 races? The poor guy," Edwards said before getting serious. "That shows you how successful he is and the expectation they have for success, and I think that when Jimmie is upset about not winning in 11 races, he's truly upset."
Edwards has made 38 starts since his last victory, and said Johnson and his team remain the standard.
"We look at them every week. No matter where they're at in the standings, how fast they are in practice, I think everyone in the garage watches them because, like it or not, which I don't like it, they are the model team right now in this era of the sport."
And, Johnson said, close to showing why again soon.
"I really feel like we're in a position to capitalize on the opportunities when they're there. And then with just good, smart racing and running in the top five, you find your way into a couple (of victories) that kind of get handed to you," he said. "I'm looking forward to those days starting again."