Jimmie Johnson tries to extend 'dynasty'
After less-than-dominant season, four-time Sprint Cup champion begins drive for five
FORT WORTH -- There are those that look at Jimmie Johnson's last few months and see a four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion who appears to be vulnerable.
Count Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage among them.
"Though he could be fooling us," Gossage acknowledged during a Chase for the Sprint Cup preview at the Fort Worth Stockyards on Tuesday. "More than any other Chase, this is up in the air because no one has assumed control. No one, not even Jimmie, has been the dominant guy."
Gossage, whose track hosts the eighth race of the Chase in early November, also admits that he doesn't want Johnson to win a record fifth consecutive title. The Chase begins Sunday in New Hampshire.
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"It would be better for the sport if somebody else won the championship this year," Gossage said. "It's like a dynasty in that, at some point, they've won enough and it's time for somebody else for the fans."
Is this the year it happens?
In a seven-race stretch from Daytona in July through Bristol in August, Johnson had one top-10 finish (10th at Pocono). And he finished 22nd or worse in five of those seven races. That's the most he's struggled in that long a stretch since he won his first championship in 2006.
So how big are those cracks in the No. 48 windshield?
Small. Don't be fooled into thinking Johnson's championship hopes are going to shatter because of one rough patch during a long season.
Johnson starts the Chase at No. 2 in the standings after five wins, just one less than Denny Hamlin. Johnson also begins with a little momentum, having finished third the last two weeks.
"The summer has been tough on us, no doubt about that," said Johnson, who added that his team has had slow points during previous championship runs. "Our job is to go out and show these other race teams that we're not vulnerable. Hopefully, we can go out and win this weekend and send that message."
Johnson said the Chase is wide open and he understands that other teams see an opportunity to pounce on what hasn't been a dominant year for the No. 48 team by its lofty standards. He jumped up the points standings because the Chase seedings are based on wins, but he also has four DNFs -- the most of any driver in the Chase.
"Everybody is susceptible to poor performances, mistakes and bad parts," Gossage said. "They are too. But they are phenomenal in those last 10."
Yes, they are. When NASCAR's version of the postseason begins, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are at their best. Of the 60 Chase races the last six seasons, Johnson has won 18 -- an astounding 30 percent. He has 33 top-5 finishes and 45 top-10 finishes (75 percent) in those races.
Johnson's had so much success that by the time he's arrived at Homestead for the final race the past four seasons, the Chase was anything but and he's simply needed to stay out of trouble and coast to a decent finish.
"They perform well at the mile-and-a-half ovals, which are at least half of the Chase, and they know how to play the Chase game better than anybody," Gossage said. "To me, it's simply a matter of not making mistakes and not getting caught in someone else's mistakes. If they do that, they've got a chance to keep this going."
Gossage, though, is hoping someone can knock the four-time champ out.
"It's one reason you see attendance and lower TV ratings over the last several seasons, because Jimmie has dominated," Gossage said. "It would be better for the sport for somebody else to win. I'm taking Kyle Busch. I think Joe Gibbs Racing has momentum and he's probably one of the most talented drivers out there."
Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have no interest in ending this run.
"As we get closer to the Chase, we've narrowed in on what we need to do and how we need to do it," Johnson said.
In other words: Johnson is ready to begin the Chase for No. 5.