For the second time this season, Jimmie Johnson will enter a race weekend having won the past three Cup races at the track.
Normally, such a statistic should be a sign Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team are in prime position to take advantage.
However, this season has been anything but normal for Johnson.
Entering Sunday’s Goody’s Cool Orange 500 at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway, Johnson has one top-10 finish in five Sprint Cup Series races and lies outside the cutoff for the Chase.
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The two-time series champion is 13th in points, 14 behind 12th-place Martin Truex Jr.
Three times Johnson has started from the pole, but so far California (a second) is the only time he finished anywhere near where he started.
Johnson also entered Las Vegas Motor Speedway on the heels of three consecutive wins. He left with a 29th-place finish. He appeared headed to a top-10 at Bristol, Tenn., only to see a late flat tire put him two laps down.
“We’re not excited to be driving our hearts out to finish 13th at Atlanta and then the week before at Vegas was a disaster. We’re not happy to be in that position, but it’s racing. Everybody goes through lulls,” said Johnson, who has 33 wins in 224 starts.
“It’s uncharacteristic for us to start the season like that. I think it’s probably the first one for the No. 48 car, but it is what it is and we feel like in the last few weeks we’ve identified the problem and the areas where we need to work and we’re making good gains.”
Johnson is by no means alone in his struggles at Hendrick.
Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon is 14th in points with two top-10s, and Casey Mears is 33rd in points with no top-10s.
Only new teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. has found consistent success in 2008. He’s fifth in points with four top-10 and three top-five finishes. None of the Hendrick drivers have won.
The slow start is uncharacteristic for Johnson.
In each of his past four seasons, Johnson had at least one victory before the sixth race. Until this year, every season since he became fulltime in 2002 he’s had top-10s during the first five races.
“I know what Chad (Knaus, crew chief) can do and he knows what I can do. It’s not like those issues that you might have with a young team and driver pointing fingers at each other saying it’s his problem (or) it’s his problem,” Johnson said.
“We’re in this thing together and we’re making it better each week. And the confidence carries us through the tough times. It questions you. But the confidence from success carries us through.”
Johnson said his team went through a similar experience during 2005 when it had trouble adjusting to springs many teams were utilizing.
“I feel like this car is doing that and we’re going down that same road right now. Once we get it, we’re going to be right on top of things,” Johnson said.
In the meantime the No. 48 is not resting on its two straight championships.
The team had planned to test Monday at Kentucky Speedway, but weather conditions prevented that. It also scheduled a test at Nashville Superspeedway.
“We’re working really hard to get back to where these expectations are,” Johnson said. “We’ve set our own expectations, too.”