Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – MARTINSVILLE, VA – Jimmie Johnson hasn’t won a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race since he triumphed at Dover on June 4 of last year.
That constitutes a winless streak of 28 races, the longest drought of Johnson’s career.
But the seven-time series champion scoffed at the notion that his prolonged absence from Victory Lane represents a decline in his prowess on the track.
“I don’t think that way,” said the driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in advance of Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway (2 p.m. ET on FS1). “At the end of last year, there were layers of high frustration and some embarrassment that we just couldn’t get things going in the right direction. This year, we’ve improved every week and have seen great strides. So I’m very optimistic that success is out there in front of us and around the corner.
“But, through it all, I live in the moment and understand where I am and where our team is and what we’re doing as a company. I know the journey that we’re on. I know what’s happening internally to build a better product and to better use our resources to build a better think tank, if you will, and how all the crew chiefs work together. So there’s a journey of growth going on right now at the company.”
Johnson has 83 victories at NASCAR highest level, tied for sixth on the all-time list with Cale Yarborough and 40 ahead of Kyle Busch, who is second among active drivers. Accordingly, a 28-race winless streak doesn’t have Johnson pulling out his hair.
“I’m reminded every week of a streak that’s not one that you want to be reminded of – but I’m not losing sleep over it,” Johnson said. “I know I’m going to win races. I know this team is going to win races. I know we’re going to compete for championships. It’s just getting all of our stuff right.
“I think people often take for granted how competitive pro sports are and how competitive this garage area is. And although we’ve been able to do some pretty amazing things that have never been done before, I think it’s unfair to believe that it can last forever.”
Chase Elliott, Johnson’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, hasn’t seen a decline in skill in the 42-year-old driver.
“I would like to have his slump,” Elliott quipped. “I don’t know about everybody else. Look, everybody tries to ride on the age thing that is just so not true. You don’t forget how to drive. You don’t change your driving habits.
“You don’t just do all that in the course of a couple of years, and the guy is still one of, if not the greatest driver ever to ever come through NASCAR. I would probably say the best ever without question.”
Told of Elliott’s assertion, Johnson said simply, “I’ll take it.”
DENNY HAMLIN LOOKS TO MOVE FORWARD FROM CHASE ELLIOTT INCIDENT
Even if you don’t remember that Kyle Busch won last October’s Playoff race at Martinsville Speedway, you probably recall that Denny Hamlin forcibly evicted Chase Elliott from the lead when Elliott was poised to claim his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory and advance to the championship race at Homestead.
With Elliott the most likely candidate to take over Most Popular Driver honors from retiring Dale Earnhardt Jr., the reaction of fans to Hamlin’s bump was swift and merciless. And two weeks later at ISM Raceway in Phoenix, Elliott returned the favor by roughing up Hamlin and ruining his chances to make the final race.
“Those type of incidents have happened for a long time in the course of NASCAR history by a lot of different people, and I think it really had a lot to do with the people in play,” Hamlin said on Saturday at Martinsville. “Maybe if the shoe was on the other foot, there would have been cheers.
“It’s part of short-track racing, and it obviously gets used a lot for promos. Thank goodness this isn’t Texas Motor Speedway, or we’d have a boxing ring or something sitting outside. It’s part of short-track racing and it has been for many, many years. It was just bad to be a part of it on that particular night.”
But Hamlin acknowledges it’s pointless to dwell on something that happened nearly five months ago.
“It was a mistake on my part, and I moved on from it – we both have,” Hamlin said. “We’ve raced each other quite a bit during the course of this year and been fine.
“The only bad memories are, really, it just kind of unraveled our chance to make the final four, to be honest with you. That part of it is frustrating, but it was so long ago that my focus had already shifted to this season, and I can’t go back, so I’ve got to go forward now.”
On his 24th lap of final practice, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wheel-hopped into Turn 3 and slammed his No. 17 Roush Fenway Racing Ford into the outside wall. The extensive damage that resulted required a backup car, and Stenhouse will start from the rear in Sunday’s STP 500 at the .526-mile short track. “We had planned on doing like 40 laps and a long run and then come in, making a change and doing another one, but going in Turn 3, I got on the brakes and got wheel-hop, which we haven’t had in two or three races here. When I first started coming to Martinsville in my career, I had a lot of wheel-hop and I actually did that a lot here, so it kind of caught me off-guard that we had it.”
Martin Truex Jr., last Sunday’s winner at Auto Club Speedway, paced both Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practices on Saturday, running 95.752 mph in the morning session and 95.415 mph in Happy Hour. The defending series champion also had won consecutive pole positions at Phoenix and Auto Club. Truex also had the best consecutive 10-lap average speed in the first session and was third in that category behind Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch in final practice.