The Inside Line: Johnson, 48 team off to impressive start

( - With a win in Sunday's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team moved one step closer to its goal of winning a record-tying seventh championship in NASCAR's premier series this season.

Johnson all but assured himself of making this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship with a come-from-behind victory at Atlanta, the second race in 2015. Assuming he finishes in the top 30 in points and attempts to qualify for the remaining 24 regular-season races (except in a race instance like a medical issue), Johnson is expected to be in the playoffs for the 12th year in a row. He's the only driver who has qualified for the Chase every season since NASCAR instituted a playoff format for its top series in 2004.

Joey Logano's victory in the Daytona 500 on Feb. 22 virtually guaranteed him of making the Chase for the third consecutive time. The Sprint Cup Series will run its third race of the season on Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Johnson turned in one of his most stunning performances at Atlanta after starting deep in the field. Considering he was not able to make a qualifying run on Friday due to inspection issues, Johnson had to start 37th. Twelve other drivers had their cars initially fail inspection and then could not have another examination of their vehicles completed in time for qualifying.

Kevin Harvick and Logano had been dominant in this race before Johnson took the lead for the first time on lap 198. Johnson ran in front for a total of 92 laps, including the final 21, and crossed the finish line 1.8 seconds ahead of Harvick for his fourth win at Atlanta.

"The car was just incredible," Johnson said. "I think where the race really opened up for us was once I was able to get in front of the 19 car (Carl Edwards). We'd get close to him, but then we had so many quick cautions at the start of the race. I could never get in front of him.

"The way we were arranged on pit road, I would have to come in front of the 19, get blocked in by the 34 (Joe Nemechek). Once I was able to get in front of the 19 and the 34 went down a lap, the race completely changed. I was able to rely on my guys on pit road to get me out first and things changed at that point and went our way."

If Johnson wins another championship, he will tie Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for the most titles in the series. Johnson won a record five consecutive championships from 2006-10 and then claimed his sixth title in 2013.

Last year, NASCAR revised the Chase format by expanding the field to 16 drivers and adding a series of elimination rounds. Johnson was eliminated from the Chase in the second round (Contender). He went on to finish a career-worst 11th in points.

Johnson won four times during the 2014 season, but his first victory did not happen until the 12th race -- the May 25 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. Prior to Charlotte, the media and even race fans bombarded him with questions of when he was going to get his first win of the season.

He won't have to worry about that question this year.

"It takes pressure off in some ways," he said. "We don't have the questions of, 'Are you going to win this year?' It's nice to dodge that. We'll have to win again in six to eight weeks or else those questions will come around. Buys us a little bit of a reprieve."

Chad Knaus has served as crew chief for the No. 48 team since Johnson's rookie season in 2002. When Johnson was knocked out of title contention last year, following the Talladega race, there were doubts about Knaus' future with the team. There had been friction between the two late in the season as well.

Speculation of Knaus's future with Johnson ended when they won the Nov. 2 race at Texas.

Now with a victory at Atlanta, the first race that featured the 2015 rules package for the Sprint Cup cars, it appears Johnson and Knaus are clicking again.

"I just know we're going to continue to work and do the best we possibly can," Knaus said. "That's the vintage 48 methodology. If you win, you just put your head down, keep digging, try to get the next one. That's kind of how we're going to approach the season.

"Just because we won (Sunday) doesn't mean we're going to go to Vegas and knock it out of the park. I think we have the ability to, but I don't think there's any givens by any stretch.

Well, let's wee what Johnson and Knaus can do in Las Vegas, where they've won four times together in the past.