Jimmie Johnson dominated the Sprint Cup circuit with 10 wins in 2007 en route to his second consecutive Sprint Cup championship. He and teammate Jeff Gordon, who had one of the best years ever for a non-Champion, were the prohibitive favorites to win the Sprint Cup in 2008. However, when Johnson's 2008 season got off to a slow start, it raised a lot of eyebrows.
Johnson steers away championship form
Johnson finished 27th in the season opening Daytona 500. It's a restrictor plate track with a reputation for accidents and other mishaps; Daytona International Speedway often features top drivers finishing back in the pack. Under normal circumstances, Johnson's poor result would have been an excusable finish. However, Johnson won the pole at Daytona and was on the short list of favorites to win the race, magnifying his poor finish.
Johnson seemed to right the ship the following week at California Speedway, where he finished second to Roush Fenway Racing driver Carl Edwards. It was Johnson's third consecutive finish in the top three in the California spring race. Seemingly, it was business as usual for the No. 48 Lowe's team.
It was Johnson's performance in the next two races that suggested that his road to a third consecutive championship could be a bumpy one. In the 2006 and 2007 spring races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway, Johnson won three of the four races and posted a 2.3 average finish.
This season, however, he finished 29th at Las Vegas and 13th at Atlanta, good for an average finish of 21.0. In the 19 previous races at the two tracks, Johnson's average finish had been 8.3, including six wins, 11 top-fives and 13 top-10s.
Johnson added fuel to the fire with an 18th-place run in the season's fifth race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Normally, Johnson would receive a pass for a top-20 finish at a track where he has struggled to a 16.2 average finish in 13 career starts. However, with Las Vegas and Atlanta still fresh in everyone's minds, Bristol was taken as further confirmation that Johnson "just didn't have it" this season.
Things start to look up
An excellent run at Martinsville Speedway did little to comfort panicked fantasy owners and the media, who were able to find flaws in a fourth-place finish from Johnson, the three-time defending champion on that track.
After six races, Johnson had met expectations in only one of them. He had yet to visit Victory Lane, a place where he had been three times by the seventh race in each of the last two seasons. To make matters worse, the seventh race of the season was at Texas Motor Speedway, a track where Johnson had averaged a finish of 27.0 in the spring race the past two seasons.
Instead of continuing his woes at Texas, Johnson finished second, giving him two consecutive top-fives. He followed that result with his first win of the season in the eighth race at Phoenix International Speedway.
Now coming off three consecutive top-fives, Johnson once again looks like a favorite to win his third consecutive Sprint Cup. His 12.0 average finish through eight races this season is better than it was at this time last year, when it was 12.9. He stands fourth in driver points, the same spot he found himself in last year at this time. If not for a blown tire at Bristol, his season might look even better.
Still, one has to wonder if the problems that surfaced at Las Vegas and Atlanta will appear once again. Johnson is on record as saying the 1.5-mile tracks are a work in progress. The No. 48 team did not spend a lot of time testing on these types of tracks and were anticipating being a little behind coming into the season. Additionally, the Car of Tomorrow made its debut on the 1.5-mile tracks this year, so there may have been a bit more of a learning curve than the team had been expecting.
Texas is only one race, but Johnson's second-place finish alleviates some concerns that his problems at 1.5-mile tracks might be ongoing. After the Phoenix win Johnson pronounced, "We're back."
That may indeed be the case when it comes to the flat tracks like Martinsville and Phoenix. Fantasy owners should be very comfortable playing Johnson on tracks similar to the ones he has had success at this season.
Fantasy gamers may want to be a bit more skeptical when it comes to the 1.5-mile tri-ovals. Despite his Texas success, Johnson is still 1-for-3 on these types of intermediate tracks this season. If you are a Johnson fantasy owner, fan or even hater, the date to circle is May 25. That's the next time the Sprint Cup heads to the 1.5-mile track at Lowe's Motor Speedway; it is arguably Johnson's best track. In 13 career starts, he leads all active drivers with a 6.8 average finish and five wins. All told, he has eight top-fives and 11 top-10s. If Johnson is indeed "back," then a top-five at Lowe's must be a given. Anything less could suggest that the No. 48 team is still searching to get back on track.
If that is the case, we may not know what Johnson really has for the Chase for the Sprint Cup until it arrives in September. The circuit runs on just one more 1.5-mile tri-oval – Chicagoland Speedway in July – before the Chase for the Sprint Cup. The Chase itself features five such tracks. The worst-case scenario is that Johnson heads into the Chase still searching on the 1.5-mile intermediates. If that's the case, he will be an underdog to three-peat.
He remains an elite fantasy performer capable of winning every single week, even if Johnson continues to struggle on the 1.5-mile tracks. He still has the best cars NASCAR has to offer courtesy of Hendrick Motorsports, and the schedule is littered with tracks that he has made his own. If you were to hold a fantasy draft today, for the remainder of the season, Johnson would be a worthy No. 1 pick.