Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – BRISTOL, TN – Jimmie Johnson showed up for his news conference Friday morning at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway dressed nicely in a “Lowe’s” emblazoned polo shirt and “Lowe’s’’ cap. The defending champion of Sunday’s Food City 500 [2 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio] greeted reporters, laughed a little and fully confronted the elephant in the room.
He is on the longest winless streak of his seven-time NASCAR Cup championship career – 30 races – and yet simultaneously remains a race trophy away from tying NASCAR Hall of Famers Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip with 84 career victories.
“It’s definitely the story,” the always affable Johnson said. “We have high expectations for ourselves, first and foremost; and we think that we should be in the position to win races every year and compete for race wins each weekend.
“So I think within that there’s a lot of fair questions being asked.
“But, I think there is overreaction by fans and media on that upper percentile of it, especially all the kind and wonderful people on social media and the things they have to say,” Johnson added tongue-and-cheek.
Johnson doesn’t have to confirm the notion on Twitter, he knows he’s due to win. And in many ways the fact that he hasn’t won in 30 races – a fraction of a single season – says much more about his overall success than any recent frustrations.
All three of NASCAR’s Cup Series manufacturers have posted wins this season, but Chevrolet hasn’t since Austin Dillon’s thrilling last lap-victory in the season-opening Daytona 500.
Much of the season has been a duel between three-time race winner, Kevin Harvick in a Ford and three-time runner-up Kyle Busch who drove his Toyota into victory lane last week for the first time in 2018.
But the expectations for Johnson and his Chevy brethren remain undaunted. Each week Johnson said he sees improvement and while the winless streak gets attention because of the precedent he’s set, he remains optimistic and calculated.
“We are improving,” he allowed. “We’re making it better each and every week.
“And,” he said smiling, “I’ve used this phrase many times before, but we’re just stacking pennies when we need to start stacking some quarters.
“The effort is there. We are such a united team and working as close together as ever. I know in time we’ll get there. I want to be there right now and we certainly hope this weekend, we can turn the corner. But I think we’re seeing some good steps and some good strides.”
It is not only an adjustment for the whole Chevrolet family – learning the new Camaro which debuted in the Cup ranks this season – but it’s been a new situation for Johnson’s smaller, Hendrick Motorsports family as well.
Two of the four fulltime Hendrick Motorsports Cup drivers are new to their positions in 2018 – William Byron, who drives the No. 24 Chevy and Alex Bowman, who drives the No. 88 Chevy. And two of his three teammates – 20-year old rookie William Byron and 22-year old Chase Elliott – are about half Johnson’s age (42). Bowman is only 25.
Last year Johnson posted what turned into a popular and hilarious video on social media showing him driving the other three around like a parent with his kids.
And while Johnson concedes the team vibe is different with three up-and-comers versus the veteran slate that has characterized the championship team for so long. – it remains a very positive situation. With seven championships and 83 Cup victories, Johnson would be the respected statesman on ANY Cup team. And at Hendrick, he is revered, appreciated and well-liked.
“I certainly miss the camaraderie and friendships and history I’ve had with the other veteran teammates,” Johnson said. “You also learn set-up styles. When Jeff Gordon thought his car was perfect, I knew I needed two or three changes to get my car to where I loved it. Same thing with Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) and Kasey (Kahne) and so on.
“That part I’m developing and trying to get my arms around and it’s going well. But I’ve just been really amazed with the sense of feel that my three teammates have with their race cars and [how they] can describe that.
“I do miss my friends and do miss aspects of the work process like I mentioned, but these guys are doing a great job.”
Johnson arrived in Bristol ranked 20th in the points standings and still looking to lead his first lap of 2018. An accident in the Daytona 500 and an accident Sunday in Texas have bookended a year of hard work and hard lessons.
But Johnson arrived at Bristol Motor Speedway this week ready as always to put in the work necessary to hoist the hardware. Perhaps the fittest driver in the sport, he did a 100-mile bike ride on Thursday as part of his physical preparation. And historically speaking, no one current driver is more on top of their game.
“It’s small increments from good to great,’’ Johnson reminded the room Friday morning. “And right now, we’ve just been in that good category. We need to be great. We want to be great.’’
Or perhaps, more accurately for Johnson: even great-er.