Jimmie Johnson started his Sprint Cup title defense with a 12th-place finish last weekend at Chicagoland, which puts him eighth in the Chase standings going into Sunday at New Hampshire.
But while he’s currently in position to advance into the next round, he knows that he and the 48 bunch need to go from good to great in order to take home a record-tying seventh Cup.
For a mid-season stretch, it appeared that Johnson had re-captured his normal degree of dominance with three wins (Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, Dover, and Michigan) in the span of four races. But he’s only collected two Top-5 finishes in the 12 events since that Michigan triumph in June.
Johnson feels that his team’s not far off from where they need to be, but that last little bit of performance seems to be proving hard to keep.
“The rules have changed so much,” he explained. “We feel that in some ways, the opportunity to help the car turn through the corner with this rules package and all the changes that have been made, a lot of tools have been taken away from us.
“So, I’m trying to get my head around, ‘How do I drive a tighter race car? And then, how do we get speed?’ We had it right for three races this year, so it’s in there. But, you all see how close the times are in practice and qualifying in the race.
“You’re not looking for a ton – just a half a tenth to a tenth will completely turn things around. So, we’re looking for just that little sliver of speed to get back to a dominant position.”
Johnson admitted that the ability to be close but not quite up to the lofty standards that he and his team have set over the last decade has bothered them somewhat.
However, they’re far from a stage of panic.
“As the No. 48, and in the culture of Hendrick Motorsports, we expect a lot out of ourselves, let alone what any outside pressure would be,” he said. “And we’re not where we want to be. But again, with this format of the Chase, there’s time.
“In some respects, it could be a little bit more forgiving for you, where the gross points total doesn’t determine the champion at the end of the year.
“So, we’re going to play the game that’s ahead for us and get the best we can and hopefully heat up as this Chase wears on.”