Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Johnson officially eliminated, but recent performances should be his main concern

It’s done. It’s over. For the first time in the history of Monday Morning Crew Chief, Jimmie Johnson will not be the Sprint Cup Series champion.

Johnson currently sits fifth in the points standings, 68 points out of the lead and mathematically eliminated from a chance at the championship.

Johnson’s run of championships was bound to end at some point, but it still feels weird not to at least have him in contention at Homestead. He at least had a mathematical shot to win the two Chases before his run of five championships began in 2006. That means he could be a seven-time champion if things had gone right at Homestead in 2004 and 2005.

Wow. Johnson has been simply amazing since he entered the Sprint Cup Series full time in 2002. He has always finished with at least three wins and has finished no worse than fifth in the points standings. Both of those streaks are also in jeopardy heading into Homestead.

Many people have already started to reminisce about how great it was that Johnson made history with five straight titles. What happened to all of the hatred directed at that team when it won all of the time? This happens with every really successful driver at some point. Once he stops winning, all of a sudden people want to relive the past and see him win again. We’re never satisfied.

In any case, Johnson’s performance in this year’s Chase has been surprisingly sub-par. Sure, fuel mileage got him at Chicago and wrecks hurt his finishes at New Hampshire and Charlotte, but the #48 car has run in the middle of the pack after Johnson came to within shouting distance of the lead after a second-place finish at Martinsville.

Since then Johnson has finished 14th at Texas and Phoenix. Usually, Johnson sees an opportunity and smashes the rest of the field and grab tight to the points lead he goes through a stretch of races such as the one at Kansas. He won that race in dominating fashion, leading 197 of the 272 laps.

Instead, Johnson has been mediocre for the balance of the Chase. The race at Phoenix is particularly troubling. Hendrick Motorsports is typically very good at adjusting to changes in the sport, and Johnson has been dominant at Phoenix in the past, but he ran much of the race in the mid-20s and never made a charge toward the front. Even when he took two tires and jumped up to ninth after a caution, he eventually fell back into the 20s.

But, Johnson still sits fifth in the points standings heading into the final race of the season. There are a lot of drivers would dream of a season where they could finish fifth in the points. The problem is Johnson expects to be better than fifth in the points.

Regardless, it feels like Johnson is doing terribly right now because he has become a mid-pack car in the last two races. The concern should be on his performance during the race rather than his finishes. It won’t truly matter where Johnson is in the points again for another 52 weeks, but how he performs in many of the races during that span does matter.

The #48 team might find this to be its most difficult offseason yet because for one of the few times in Johnson’s career his car didn’t drive well enough to even compete near the front of the field.

No matter what the final stats say, that #48 car has to start running better throughout a race before that team can even think about competing for another championship.

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