'Slump' behind him, Jimmie Johnson arrives in Kentucky on a roll

awincze@herald-leader.comJune 27, 2014 

SPARTA — After six championships, 69 career victories and countless other legacy-making moments, one would think Jimmie Johnson would have an answer for everything.

What he cannot explain are the intangibles behind his No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet.

There are other talented, championship-winning drivers on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. And Hendrick Motorsports is certainly not the only well-funded, smartly staffed team.

Still, there is a figurative switch that seems to take up permanent residence within the No. 48 garage. And once Johnson and his team figure out each season how to flip it, the power it generates is something no other team can match.

"You know, I don't exactly know what it is," Johnson said at Kentucky Speedway on Friday. "I know we have it, and I sit back with amazement myself that we're able to stay in the zone for long stretches, year in and year out."

There might be instances where the No. 48 crew takes a race or — gasp — 12 to get in its full-on groove. But few teams in motorsports have been as adept at harnessing momentum for enduring stretches than the one behind six-time Cup Series champion Johnson.

Having won three of the last five races, it appears the No. 48 team has flipped the switch again heading into Saturday night's Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway.

Everyone in NASCAR is well versed in what a dialed-in version of crew chief Chad Knaus' team can do. So when Johnson went the first 11 races this season without a victory in a year when winning is needed to lock into the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup, people started wondering if there was a problem.

Some of it was circumstantial. Most of it was due to playing catch-up on some of the new rules package, since the end of 2013 was spent focused on winning championship No. 6.

After breaking his "drought" with a victory in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, N.C., on May 25, Johnson jokingly began his news conference by asking the media contingent, "What the hell are you going to write about now?"

Right now, No. 2 in the traditional points standings but No. 1 in the Chase rankings with a series-high three wins, Johnson is back to giving everyone the same story line he's crafted since taking the first of five straight championships in 2006.

"The way our team works when we're off, we're off and it's like a total disaster. But then once we kind of pull it in and find the direction to go in where the speed is in the car, we'll run down that road faster than anyone," said Johnson, who followed his Charlotte win with a victory at Dover, Del., the next week and his first-ever score at Michigan on June 15. "I don't know what that is; I know it happens. I just don't know what it is, and if I did I would keep hitting it all the time.

"But more than anything, we're taking advantage of opportunity and have been able to pull into victory lane."

Kentucky joins Chicago, Watkins Glen and Miami-Homestead as the only tracks on the NASCAR circuit at which Johnson has not yet won. However, Johnson has had what looked to be the best car at times in the three prior Cup races at the Sparta tri-oval.

Last year, the No. 48 Lowe's was the dominant car in a race that was postponed a day because of heavy rains, leading 182 of the 267-lap test. Johnson's day came undone with 20 to go, though, when he lost air and spun in Turn 2 after restarting second on the inside of eventual winner Matt Kenseth following the final round of pit stops.

"When we first started coming here I was not so excited," Johnson recalled. "I raced Nationwide here, did a lot of testing and I crashed a bunch at this track. So when we came here for the first race and were competitive, I was like, 'OK, cool. The monkey is off my back with this track.'

"Then the next trip we made, we had the car to win the race and just something that last segment, that last pit stop we gave it away, especially last year, and didn't win. So I do come in optimistic, more excited to come take the trophy because it is a fun track to drive."

Intermediate, 11/2-mile tracks like Kentucky have been Johnson's bread and butter. Barring a fall-off in his program, a Bluegrass victory at some point seems inevitable.

"The one thing about our team is we've always put more pressure on ourselves than any outside force," Johnson said. "We definitely had fun with the big winless streak that took place, that's why when I got to the podium in Charlotte after I won, before they asked me a question I asked them what the hell they were going to write about now. We definitely have fun with it."

Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.

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