“Is he past his prime?”
“Will he ever win another championship?”
“Should Chad Knaus be fired as crew chief?”
Those questions and then some dogged Jimmie Johnson through the first four months of 2014, as the six-time champ endured a winless drought that lasted all the way through the Coca-Cola 600 Memorial Day Weekend. It was a draining series of questions you earn when you’re an athlete on top of the mountain; in today’s world of 24/7 media, the second you get there is the second everyone waits for you to fall off.
While Johnson did recover last summer, winning three races in a month’s time the team found themselves stumbling in the Chase. Involved in a Kansas wreck, the end result of a poor qualifying effort, Johnson found himself knocked out long before the season finale at Homestead. The 11th-place finish in the final standings was his worst since joining the Cup circuit in 2002. The questions began again: was this team a true title contender going forward?
Two weeks in, we have our answer — and it’s in the form of a Winner’s Trophy.
“It takes the pressure off,” said Johnson after holding off teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win Atlanta, the second race of the Sprint Cup season. “We don’t have the questions of, ‘Are you going to win this year,’ the stuff that is from the fans and what goes on in here. 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.”
It also establishes Johnson up front in a way he never was throughout the 2014 season. Last year, it was eventual champion Kevin Harvick who won during the series’ second race, at Phoenix and then outgunned the Hendrick Motorsports cars on speed nearly every week. At times, Harvick’s car would break, the symptom of a first-year team getting its act together. But when the pit stops held up, keeping track position safe for the No. 4 car he would be able to beat Johnson, Earnhardt Jr. and company plenty more than they were used to.
Harvick’s still very much a contender, leading a race-high 116 laps Sunday and posting his second straight runner-up finish. However, Johnson was the one who outgunned him late, making up for lost time on multiple pit stops to slice through traffic and score the victory. In a race where passing was difficult, leaving the best cars going mano a mano against each other, the No. 48 car had the brute horsepower and handling to outgun everything else.
It’s a good sign going forward, especially with the way Johnson’s team was reorganized a bit at the end of last year.
“Through getting to know the new folks on our team, the engineers, they understood what I was asking for, found a way to give it to me,” he said. “I knew within about two sets of corners when the race started we were going to have an awesome day. The car was just incredible.”
Johnson so confident, so soon? That’s a bad sign for the rest of the competition.
Let’s go Through The Gears post-Atlanta...
FIRST GEAR: Johnson, Hendrick Make Hay With New Rules Package
The first week of “real” racing was clearly a victory for Hendrick Motorsports. Johnson won, teammate Earnhardt ran third and Harvick, driving with a Hendrick chassis and engine, finished between them. In two races, HMS has now led 251 laps which is tops among all teams on the circuit.
Perhaps just as important as Johnson’s victory was Earnhardt, posting his second straight top-5 finish to start the season with new crew chief Greg Ives. It’s clear the No. 88 team hasn’t skipped a beat since losing longtime leader Steve Letarte the end of last season.
“Happy with the car. Happy with Greg. Greg is great at communicating,” he said. “Our communication is natural, feels good. He's a pretty decent cheerleader, too, for myself, the team. Man, he's going to be something else for a while around that garage.”
Joey Logano, who won the pole, leads a formidable Team Penske combination. They’re clearly top-tier contenders, along with Joe Gibbs Racing. But so far, HMS holds a slight edge.
SECOND GEAR: Who’s In Trouble Early
It’s only two races in, and points don’t mean so much with NASCAR’s new “Win and You’re In” Chase format. That being said, two former champions in Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart find themselves in deep holes early. Tied for 35th in the standings, that’s also how many points in the Chase cutoff they are behind already, as both have wrecked twice in two races. Stewart’s slump is the most concerning; he’s only got one top-5 finish since returning to the Cup Series following the Kevin Wad, Jr. tragedy last summer.
Other stragglers include Chip Ganassi Racing (four starts, four wrecks) and Roush Fenway Racing, whose young drivers Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. sit outside the top 20 in points. But perhaps worst off of all is Landon Cassill, the first driver to post back-to-back last-place finishes (blown engines) since the first year of NASCAR’s top series in 1949.
THIRD GEAR: Dude, Where’s My Car? And Other Qualifying Debacles
Friday was already a strange day at Atlanta Motor Speedway after Travis Kvapil’s Cup car, holed up in a hotel parking lot overnight never even made it to the track. But NASCAR’s qualifying format, already weakened with a debacle at the Daytona 500 took another hit when over a dozen cars never made it past inspection in time. Among those who weren’t able to get their shot at qualifying were Johnson, Stewart, and Matt Kenseth.
“If we would have known this was going to happen,” tweeted Stewart, “We could have worked on the race setup. Was a total waste of a day at the track.”
The weird result left full-time cars like HScott Motorsports’ Michael Annett missing the race without being able to make an attempt. In the end, Annett bought his way in but such a strategy further waters down the whole idea of athletic competition. Whether it was the teams stretching limits, a slow technical inspection line, whatever the culprit… this situation can’t happen again. Group qualifying was supposed to become a way to make the sport more exciting. Instead? It’s laughable.
FOURTH GEAR: No SAFER Barrier… Again
Gordon’s late-race wreck saw him sent into a backstretch wall without one of the sport’s SAFER Barriers. Gordon was OK, despite the hard hit but it was the second time in as many weeks a superstar was put in peril unnecessarily.
NASCAR, in response claimed this week adding more SAFER barriers at each of its tracks was “high priority.” But every day, every race they wait puts us ever closer to bad luck striking the sport. Kyle Busch is already out several months with leg injuries after the Daytona debacle; could you imagine if Gordon got hurt the following week? NASCAR is playing with fire right now and one more incident at Vegas this Sunday could force the sanctioning body to put its money where its mouth is.
Reaction on the new driver track bar adjuster was mixed. Some, like Jamie McMurray thought it saved an ill-handling car during a run while others felt like there was limited impact. “I haven't found it to be anything that sets the world on fire,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Actually moving it down really just hurts my car. Moving it up made the back swing a little bit too much. I never used it and got happy about it…” Regan Smith (filling in for Kurt Busch) and David Ragan (Kyle Busch) ran 17th and 18th, respectively in their substitute roles. Ragan will be driving Kyle Busch’s No. 18 car for the next several weeks until the JGR organization thinks young Erik Jones is ready to run the race… A late-race accident that put Gordon in the wall started when Denny Hamlin, one of last year’s Final Four championship contenders simply lost it. “I just got sucked around,” he said to jumpstart an incident that also involved McMurray and Stenhouse Jr.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.