Sprint Cup Series driver Jimmie Johnson (48) has sparks come out from under his car during the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway. (USA TODAY Sports: Peter Casey)
That’s the sound of Jimmie Johnson flipping his switch just in time for the first race of the 2013 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
Although Johnson has struggled over the past four races, rattling off uncharacteristic performances of 40th, 36th, 28th and 40th, no driver has dominated NASCAR’s postseason more than the El Cajon, Calif., driver.
Sunday’s GEICO 400 (2 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Chicagoland Speedway, one of only five tracks at which the five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion has not visited Victory Lane, is Johnson’s first opportunity to turn his fortunes around and regain some of the momentum he had lost — he finished in top 10 in seven of the nine races, including two victories, previous to the last four races.
“There’s always a little concern. Without a doubt you want to enter the Chase with momentum,” Johnson said. “I think every team falls back on past history. We have won championships without momentum going into the first (Chase) race.”
And more times than not, it’s had little impact on where he stood at the end of the season. Matter of fact, only once during his five championship seasons did Johnson enter the postseason as the No. 1 seed — in 2007. In 2006, his first championship year, Johnson entered the Chase in second place (the same spot he holds this year) and finished a dismal 39th in the Chase opener at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. In the last four races of the regular season that year he had only one top 10 (a 10th at Bristol Motor Speedway). To end the season, however, he rattled off a streak of six straight top-10 finishes, including a win and four runner-up performances.
“So we’re going to fall on our experience and also the experience of knowing the Chase is so different than anything else,” Johnson said. “You’re only racing 12 guys, not 43. So things change a lot.”
No other driver has more experience in or knows the Chase better than Johnson. He is the only driver to qualify for all 10 playoffs since the Chase format was instituted in 2004. He also has more wins (22) in the Chase than any other driver; Tony Stewart has the second most with 11.
At the 10 tracks featured in this year’s Chase, Johnson has 34 wins, 90 top fives, 136 top 10s, an average starting position of 10.7, an average finishing position of 10.0, an average running position of 9.4, run 11.2 percent of the fastest laps, run 82.8 percent of the laps in the top 15, run 14.8 percent of the laps in the lead and holds a driver rating of 109.3 — all highs among the 12 drivers in the 2013 postseason.
Johnson’s most dominating Chase appearance came in 2009 when he finished with nine top 10s over the last 10 races, including four wins (he also had four victories in the 2004 and 2008 postseasons). His lone performance outside the top 10 was a 38th-place showing at Texas Motor Speedway where he was involved in an accident with Sam Hornish Jr. on lap 4. He went on to win the title that season by 141 points over then Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin — the biggest points margin since the Chase format was implemented.
Although Johnson has never seized the checkered flag at Chicagoland, he’s finished runner-up there thrice — 2004, 2008 and 2012. In 11 starts at the 1.5-mile track, he has amassed six top fives, nine top 10s and two poles. He’s been running at the finish of 10 of the events he’s started there, finishing on the lead lap in nine of them.
“We have been close so many times at Chicago. We always run well there. I don’t know what it is,” Johnson said. “We just haven’t gotten the win. … It would obviously be a great way to start the Chase.”
A LITTLE HELP FOR SMITH
Several weeks ago, Regan Smith was able to test at Chicagoland Speedway, providing him and his team much needed information headed into Saturday’s Dollar General 300 Powered by Coca-Cola 300 (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2) at the track.
The knowledge he and his team took away from the testing session and the July race where he finished 13th have the 29-year-old driver from Cato, N.Y., eager to add another win to his 2013 resume and climb back up the standings.
“We’re at the point now where it’s imperative we get the best finish and all the points we can each week,” said Smith, who already has two wins this season (Talladega and Michigan). “There aren’t too many races left in this championship battle and you don’t want to be the team making mistakes.”
With eight races left before a new champion is crowned — reigning back-to-back champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. moved to a full-time ride in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series prior to the beginning of the season — Smith is in third place in the standings, 26 points behind leader Sam Hornish Jr. Austin Dillon is second, 10 markers in front of Smith.
This weekend, when Smith lines up for the start of the race, his owner and teammate NASCAR Sprint Cup regular and fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. will also be wheeling a JR Motorsports Chevrolet. The race will be Earnhardt’s fourth and final series start of the season.
With Earnhardt in the race, expect Earnhardt and Smith along with their teams to be more than willing to share notes on car set-ups and racing conditions in an effort to help the latter move up the standings.
In four NASCAR Nationwide starts at Chicagoland, Smith’s best finish came in the July race. His other three showings resulted with less-than-spectacular results: 26th, 40th and 28th. In four NASCAR Sprint Cup starts at the track, he’s placed 34th, 20th, 17th and 34th.
Earnhardt, who won back-to-back NASCAR Nationwide titles in 1998-1999, has made one previous start at the Joliet, Ill., oval. He finished 15th in 2006. In 12 NASCAR Sprint Cup starts, he has one victory (2005), three top fives and five top 10s.
CAN BUESCHER MAKE IT THREE OUT OF FIVE?
One year after winning his first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series title, James Buescher is making a push to put a second championship trophy on his mantel.
Buescher arrives at Chicagoland Speedway for Friday night’s EnjoyIllinois.com 225 (8:30 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1) second in the standings, 37 points behind Matt Crafton, and after winning his second race in four events.
“I couldn’t be more excited about going back to Chicagoland Speedway, especially coming off a huge win for our Turner Scott Motorsports team last weekend at Iowa Speedway,” Buescher said. “I think it goes without saying that this style of track falls right into our wheelhouse.”
In addition to his two wins this season, he compiled four top fives, nine top 10s and two poles in 15 starts. Going into this weekend, he’s posted four consecutive top 10s, bookended by wins (Michigan and Iowa). He also had finishes of seventh (Bristol) and ninth (Canadian Tire) during that stretch.
In that four-week span, he’s also jumped two positions and cut into 27 points from Crafton’s lead.
He’s led only six laps at Chicagoland in his four visits with the truck series; however, he visited Victory Lane last year. His three other showings resulted in 20th-, 12th- and 11th-place finishes.