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After four straight titles, Jimmie Johnson appears vulnerable—but he won't go down without a fight
Nearly every time a microphone has been thrust in front of Jimmie Johnson over the past two months, the reigning Sprint Cup champion has been asked this question: What's wrong? For the first time since 2006, when he won the first of his four straight titles, Johnson enters the Chase in a slump. In his last nine races, his average finish has been 18.8. Over that stretch he has crashed, made uncharacteristic mistakes behind the wheel and just been slow some weekends—hardly what Johnson typically did in August and September of his championship years.
"We're certainly not as confident as we've been in years past, but we're not in panic mode," says Johnson, who finished the regular season fifth in the standings. "Our strongest tracks are in the Chase. I still believe we'll be ready to go when it actually counts."
Johnson's struggles can be traced to late March. He'd won three of the season's first five races and appeared ready to cruise to the regular-season points title. But then NASCAR replaced the rear wing on its race cars with the more traditional-looking spoiler, which radically altered the aerodynamics of the cars and, therefore, their handling characteristics. Since the debut of the spoiler, Johnson has had only two wins in 21 races.
"It's pretty clear that we weren't as prepared for the spoiler as some of the other teams," says Rick Hendrick, the owner of Johnson's number 48 team, noting that the balance of Johnson's Chevy has been a tick off for much of the season. "We've felt a sense of urgency for some time now to figure things out with the spoiler. I think we have. I'm actually pretty confident going into Loudon [New Hampshire, site of Sunday's Chase opener]."
Johnson's most glaring weakness during the regular season was his performance on intermediate tracks, which range in length from 1.5 to two miles. In Chases past, these have been the 48 team's bread-and-butter venues. On the five intermediate tracks in the Chase last season, for instance, Johnson had two wins and four top 10s. How did he fare at these tracks this summer? He finished 25th at Chicagoland on July 10 and 12th at Michigan on Aug. 15.
But it appears that Johnson's woes on the intermediates may be coming to an end, because after the second-to-last race of the regular season, at the 1.54-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sept. 5, there he was on pit road smiling as if he'd just solved the biggest riddle of his life. He'd finished third, sending a clear message to the rest of the garage: The champ is getting up to speed.
"You can't stay on top forever," Johnson says, "but damn it, we're sure as hell going to try."