Jimmie Johnson is off to a terrible start – for Jimmie Johnson, that is.
The two-time reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion simply isn’t used to being ordinary.
He heads to Bristol this week a mediocre 13th in the standings after the first four races of the season and is already 198 points behind the series leader, former Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kyle Busch.
That really doesn’t sound so bad with 22 races to go until the start of the 12-man Chase for the Championship, in which Johnson hopes to go for the first three-peat since Cale Yarborough in 1976-78. But it isn’t the kind of start that Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team expect.
“We knew that this year we were going to have challenges with the Car of Tomorrow on larger tracks, and we’re not where we want to be, but we’re working very, very hard to get on top of things,” Johnson said.
“I wouldn’t expect us to have a poor performance much longer.”
Nobody else does, either.
In his first six full seasons in Cup, Johnson has never been worse than 10th after the first four races. Twice, he has been leading the points and two other times he was fourth.
But it isn’t just the fact that he is lagging a bit this year – it’s the way he has raced at times that is worrisome.
Two weeks ago, in Las Vegas, the combination of driver Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus had one of its worst days ever, without being involved in a crash.
The No. 48 Chevy started the race bad and never got much better on the way to a 29th-place finish.
That just isn’t like the team that prides itself on in-race adjustments that take Johnson to the front.
Last Sunday, in Atlanta wasn’t quite as bad. But it wasn’t great, either.
Johnson was twice knocked a lap down by the leaders and saved a lead-lap, 13th-place finish only by being the “Lucky Dog,” the first driver a lap down, each time.
Team owner Rick Hendrick says it’s too soon to be concerned about Johnson, who had seemed almost automatic in spending more time in the top 10 since he arrived in the sport full-time in 2002 than any other driver.
Last year, the season was split between the old-style cars that had been racing for more than two decades and NASCAR’s new CoT, which ran 16 times in 2007, mostly on short tracks.
This year, it’s all CoT, and that might be the rub.
Hendrick pointed out last week that his team spent an inordinate amount of time and effort building the old car as Johnson and teammate Jeff Gordon slugged it out for the title. The Hendrick team also won nine of the 16 CoT events last year after testing heavily for those short-track events.
“I think Chad said this, ‘If you think back, we did all of our CoT testing on short and flat tracks,”’ Hendrick noted. “We built, I can’t tell you how many, but I think three or four new editions of the old cars in the last three or four years.
“We were building cars we knew we wouldn’t even run at more than one place. We knew we were not going to use that car again, but with Jimmie racing for a championship, and Jeff right there on him, we had to do that.”
That hard work and planning may be costing Hendrick’s elite team a little now.
After winning 18 of 36 races a year ago, and replacing Busch with highly regarded Dale Earnhardt Jr. over the winter, Hendrick Motorsports is 0-4 so far this season.
“All that work building cars we knew we’d never use again, it paid off and won us a championship,” Hendrick said. “But how did it affect us this year? We’re good on short tracks and flat tracks, but a little behind on the intermediates.”
Johnson agreed with his boss this week.
“Coming into this season, we didn’t spend any time testing on any of the big tracks,” Johnson said. “We’ve been on track. We’ve been learning. We’ve been making improvements, if you look at Vegas and Atlanta. We still have a very loose race car, but we made up a lot of ground (at Atlanta).
“It wasn’t the day that we wanted, but we’re definitely going down the right road.”
Now it’s back to the short tracks at Bristol and Martinsville for the next two Cup races – a chance to get the Hendrick ship righted and re-establish the team’s dominance.
“We’re excited to get on the short tracks,” Johnson said. “Bristol isn’t my best short track; we all know that. But when we get to Martinsville and Richmond and some of the other tracks where we’ve been strong with the CoT, we hope to be right back where we were.
“We’re just learning the 1.5-mile stuff. My teammates have shown well. I ran well at California. But even with those runs, we weren’t the best car. And that’s what we’re trying to find as a company, and what we’re trying to find in the No. 48 car is how we can be the best car.”
It certainly would be a big surprise if they don’t figure that out.