Still driven: Jimmie Johnson is in a dry spell, but remains confident

Apr 10 2012 - 1:59pm

On a November night in Miami not too long ago, Jimmie Johnson posed with five Sprint Cup trophies.

That was 2010.

Since then, he's got two. Not trophies. Wins.

Two victories in the 42 races since he won his fifth straight NASCAR championship.

He won at Talladega in the spring last year and at Kansas in the fall. But he faltered down the stretch of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, losing his five-year title streak, and he's winless in the first six races of this year as the series arrives at Texas Motor Speedway this week.

Two victories in a year isn't bad. But it's not the pace Johnson put up in winning the five championships. In that 180-race stretch, he won 35 times, roughly once every five starts.

But this 2-for-42 stretch -- actually 2-for-48, counting the last six races of 2010 -- is the worst drought of his 12-year Cup career.

"I look back, and I think of five or six races that got away," he said last week, getting ready for the most recent Sprint Cup race at Martinsville, Va. "Making those mistakes, I didn't make those in years past, or the team didn't make them."

Johnson had a chance for that sixth straight championship last year. He made the Chase, and a win at Kansas put him third in the standings. But a crash the next week left him too far off the pace, and he was unseated as the king of NASCAR by Tony Stewart.

"The way we closed out last year, I wasn't happy with that," Johnson said. "The team wasn't happy with that. We showed good strength up to our Kansas win, and from that point on, things slowed down for us."

This year started no better. His team took a penalty at Daytona for failing a pre-race inspection, and he wrecked after only two laps. He finished next to last in the most prestigious race of the year.

But he has rallied.

He won an appeal of the penalty, regaining 25 points that had been stripped, and crew chief Chad Knaus had a six-race suspension lifted. Johnson has been fourth, second, ninth, 10th and 12th in the past five races and is back in the top 10 in points.

His fellow drivers have not been surprised by Johnson's surge after seeing firsthand what he has done with Hendrick Motorsports equipment.

"It's been some tough luck for Hendrick to start the year, but you can never turn your back on those Hendrick guys," driver Kurt Busch said. "They're the toughest team out there."

Johnson said he keeps looking ahead.

"I have not paid attention to a stat or a number since our last win," Johnson said.

He is focused on precision, one of the reasons the No. 48 team won five straight championships. He believes that's part of what has been missing.

"There are some things that boiled down to strategy, and others down to restarts that have been on me," he said. "And some other issues in between."

Johnson is accustomed to taking advantage of opportunities. He has seen other drivers do it, and he remembers how well he did it in his championship run. He was in position to win at Martinsville last week, but a crash knocked him to 12th.

"I hate that opportunities slip away," Johnson said. "I heard Jeff Gordon say something a long time ago, 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. We need to win the races we should be able to win and that we have a shot to win.

"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."

Johnson is not discouraged. There is plenty of time in the season, and Texas Motor Speedway is a good track for him. In addition to his 2007 win, he has four second-place finishes at the 1.5-mile quadoval.

"I really feel like we're in a position to capitalize on the opportunities when they're there," he said. "And then, with just good, smart racing, and running in the top five, you find your way into a couple that kind of get handed to you. I'm looking forward to those days starting again."

 

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