Isolated incidents, or Johnson's Achilles' heel?
July 03, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
As much as his blue and white race car or his down-to-earth demeanor, a hallmark of Jimmie Johnson has been his sheer unflappability. While he can get riled up in the seat like anyone, there’s rarely any alarm on a No. 48 team that handles crises as well as any program ever has. There’s a coolness to the way Johnson operates, which translates to an almost clinical efficiency on the race track, which manifests itself in unparalleled results. This is a program capable of intimidating by its very presence, without uttering a word at all.
Which is why it’s so surprising to see the five-time champion get so agitated by restarts, which rattled him again in Sunday’s rain-delayed race at Kentucky Speedway. A month ago at Dover, he was penalized by NASCAR for jumping the final restart in a race he otherwise dominated, and later said leader Juan Pablo Montoya baited him with the racing equivalent of a foul-drawing flop in basketball. And then there was Kentucky, where he claimed leader and eventual race winner Matt Kenseth didn’t maintain pace car speed on a penultimate restart where the No. 48 car spun out.
It’s only human that Johnson would be upset after finishing ninth in an event he more than likely should have won. But the fact that it involves a restart, again, makes you wonder just how much the issue eats at someone who’s usually very good at leaving things behind. This is the most singularly focused driver in NASCAR’s premier series, a champion who minimizes distraction, and for years has worked Jedi mind tricks on opponents without really trying. During the height of his title run, the competition often seemed beaten before they even arrived at the track.
No other driver has that power, to take the lead and solely through his position on the race track give an event the unmistakable air of a fait accompli. Johnson does. Whether it’s in front of the media or behind the wheel of his No. 48 car, he’s always composed. Nothing rattles him -- well, nothing except perhaps restarts, given the events of the past month. The guy who gets into everybody else’s head may have finally found the one thing that burrows into his.
At least, that’s the impression we’re left with. The Dover controversy was somewhat understandable, given that it resulted in a penalty from NASCAR, even if Johnson’s plea for more clarity on the issue -- not to mention his contention that Montoya exploited a loophole in the rule book -- didn’t quite hold up. “You’re the leader, so you get to mess around a little bit and try to make it hard on the other guy,” said Carl Edwards, who’s had his own restart issues. “I guess that’s part of being the leader. That’s our whole job, to make it as hard as we can on the other guy as long as it’s within the rules.”
Sunday, though, was mystifying, with Johnson claiming Kenseth -- who as the leader was in control of the start, per NASCAR rules -- caused a logjam into Turn 1, where Johnson’s car broke loose and spun. Johnson provided only a few comments after the race, leaving the winner puzzled. “Somebody mentioned in Victory Lane that he was upset with the restart. I have no idea … what I possibly could have done to upset him,” Kenseth said.
“I certainly didn’t feel like I did anything wrong from where I was, but you know, after dominating all day and you have a problem at the end -- I imagine it’s frustrating,” he added. “We’ve been there, too.”
It all leads you to wonder whether these are isolated incidents, or whether restarts are truly a rare weakness for a driver who currently leads the Sprint Cup Series standings by 38 points. Eventually, we may eventually find out. There are some competitors in this championship mix who are very good at restarts, and given the problems Johnson has experienced in that area, it’s not outlandish to think that someone like Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick would relish the opportunity to exploit a potential vulnerability, and perhaps get under Five-Time’s skin a little at the same time.
More concerning to the points leader, though, has to be what’s already gotten away. Although he has three victories this season, trailing Kenseth by one in that category, he led 143 laps at Dover and finished 17th. He was chasing down leader Greg Biffle with three laps remaining at Michigan when he blew a right-front tire and finished 28th. And then there was Sunday, when he led 182 laps and had to settle for ninth after his spin on the late restart. Two of those races he could have won, meaning he’d have six more bonus points banked for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
How much does something like that matter? Just look back at last season, when Johnson blew an engine en route to what appeared a certain victory at Michigan, and then broke loose while leading on the final restart -- hey, that sounds familiar -- at Pocono, allowing Jeff Gordon to steal a rain-shortened win. That’s six points Johnson didn’t take into the Chase, six points he didn’t have in his title battle with eventual champ Brad Keselowski, six points he certainly could have used down the stretch. Think he doesn’t remember all that? Think again.
“Even in the dominant position we’re in, we look back at the last three or four races and see missed opportunity. And we know that we left some bonus points on the table, plus points in general, if we were in the Chase,” Johnson said -- and that was before Kentucky. “You can’t win a championship that way with Dover and Michigan. … You can’t make those mistakes. So although it looks like we’re just cruising along and smiling, we have a lot of pressure on ourselves to perform at the level we need to.”
That likely explains Johnson’s agitation Sunday, when another potential race victory evaded him. “The 20 should be penalized for stopping everybody on the (bleeping) restart!” he shouted over the radio right after his spin, referring to Kenseth’s car number. Crew chief Chad Knaus urged focus, but the damage had been done -- for the third time in the past year, Johnson had let a potential victory get away on a restart. Was he thinking about Dover? Next time, will he be thinking about Kentucky? Who knows. But when it comes to restarts, it seems the only person capable of getting inside Jimmie Johnson’s head is the five-time champion himself.