Winless drivers showing no panic at Dover
May 31, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
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DOVER, Del. – It isn't as definitive as "tag, you're it," but Jimmie Johnson's win last week at Charlotte definitely shifts the victory pressure to the other winless favorites such as Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne.
Johnson joked this weekend at Dover International Speedway about all the panic everyone else was feeling during his "long winless streak" in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. But, he insisted, he himself was never overly concerned.
After all, the six-time and reigning Cup champ went from being the guy who won too much to the guy suffering through a "dry spell" – relatively speaking only.
"I’m just having fun with it and trying to remind myself that it’s a backhanded compliment," Johnson said of being able to shrug off all the questions and concerns.
"I guess that we have done so well as a team and been fortunate to win a lot and win often, that we put ourselves in this corner. So, I'm glad I don’t have to answer those questions any longer and we’re looking forward to winning again soon and especially later in the year, winning often."
In the meantime, defending FedEx 400 winner Tony Stewart expects he'll be hearing "the question" more frequently. When will he get a win?
But just as Johnson said during those races before visiting Victory Lane this season, Stewart said Friday he truly wasn't worried about grabbing a trophy to secure his spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field.
Stewart-Haas Racing drivers Kurt Busch and two-time winner Kevin Harvick already have victories and Stewart has a pair of top-fives, but he is ranked 22nd in the standings.
"We luckily have been able to win at least one race a season my entire Cup career," the three-time series champion reminded. "I don't think there is ever a point, especially with this format, that you get panicked. You don't have to be stellar in the points, you just have to get a win.
"Our track record shows that we can get it. It's just a matter of when it is going to happen. With the new rules package this year, I don't think anybody is in panic mode, I think it's just everybody is still learning."
As for dealing with the media and fans, who are bound to increase the scrutiny, Stewart replied in his typically playful fashion, "The best part of winning a race would be winning a race. … it's not going to be about you guys (asking questions), trust me."
Ironically, Stewart was hearing the same questions last year entering this event. After coming off the 2011 championship and qualifying for the 2012 Chase for the NASCAR Cup, he was mired in a slow start to his 2013 season. Limited success with crew chief Steve Addington and a third car added to the SHR stable had people second-guessing why Stewart wasn't as competitive as they'd come to expect so close on the heels of a championship campaign.
In fact, Stewart's Dover winner's press conference in 2013 sounded a lot like Johnson's a week ago at Charlotte. Both graciously avoided the "I told ya so" that their efforts illustrated, but nonetheless admitted to feeling very vindicated.
Fellow Sprint Cup champion Kenseth is prepared to shoulder a larger burden of "when will you win?" as well. The low-key Wisconsin driver shrugged off any real fears of actually being without a win come Chase time in September. He just matter-of-factly reminded reporters, he tries to win every week. Everyone does.
He's currently the highest ranked driver without a win – second place in the standings, 11 points behind leader Jeff Gordon. His nine top-10s ties Gordon for most in the series.
"Certainly we wish we had a win, but you can't just say, "hey man, we need a win' and just go get one," said Kenseth, who drives the No. 20 Dollar General Toyota and will start 21st on Sunday.
"If it was that easy you'd win every week. You just keep giving your best every week and hopefully that will come.
"We've been in position to win a few races, we just haven't quite had the speed yet. So we'll just keep working on it and hopefully keep putting together mistake-free races and putting ourselves n position and hopefully sooner or later it works out."
Kahne and Bowyer – both Chase drivers last season – have a little more ground to make up. Their teams have uncharacteristically struggled.
Kahne had a win and three runner-up finishes by this race last year, yet he's ranked 17th with only four top-10s right now.
Bowyer similarly had two runner-up efforts and four top-fives coming to Dover last spring, but is currently ranked 20th with one top-five and two DNFs.
Stewart (three) and Kenseth (two) have wins at the Monster Mile. Bowyer secured the best starting position among them and will roll off 10th in the No. 15 Cherry 5-hour Energy for Special Ops Warrior Foundation Toyota.
"We are still right at the end of May right now, so everybody is still learning these cars and going to tracks for the first time in the season," Stewart said. "I think you get six or eight weeks before Richmond, then you start panicking if you don't have that win. I think it's still too early to panic, at least for us."