During the Autism Speaks 400 at Dover International Speedway, Jimmie Johnson appeared to have the car to beat — he led 225 of 400 laps and was set to challenge Kyle Busch for the win. But, on lap 365, he was hit with a pit road speeding penalty. He lost a lap serving the penalty and ended up finishing 16th.
As expected, many people blew this situation out of proportion. Johnson made a rare mistake on pit road. It happens to every driver at some point, even the best. He’s human.
But several NASCAR fans saw this penalty as the latest in a series of problems for the team. Some argue that Johnson is in a “slump” – noting that he hasn’t won a race since NASCAR switched to the spoiler before the Goodys Fast Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
But, during that seven-race span, he has four top 10s and two top 5s. I’m sure several drivers in the Sprint Cup garage would love to have those stats. Ask Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, and Dale Earnhardt Jr if they would like those numbers.
I realize that Johnson is held to different standards because he has won the last four championships. While some drivers are seeking top 5s, Johnson is seeking wins because, some fans say, he can get top 10s and top 5s in his sleep. I also realize that during that same span he has two finishes of 31st or worse.
But, those two DNFs were the result of accidents; one of which was the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Still, many would argue that this signals that Johnson’s luck bank has run dry — perhaps he has misplaced his golden horseshoe. But that’s not the case.
In 2006, the season Johnson won his first Sprint Cup championship, through the first 12 races (including Dover*), he had an average finish of seventh – his best in the time frame I analyzed (2006-2010). From 2007 to 2009, he posted average finishes of 10.3, 13.3, and 12.7 respectively, in the first 12 races. In 2010, he has posted an average finish of 13.1, which is not his worst.
* In 2010, Dover was run as the 12th race in the season, before Charlotte. But before that, Dover was the 13th race, after Charlotte. So, to keep the stats concerning Johnson’s performance up to this point in the season consistent for this analysis, I included Dover.
Over the first 12 races of the season, Johnson has averaged nearly three wins each season since 2006. How many wins does he have this season through the first 12 races?
He also averages about two finishes of 30th or worse over these races. Granted he has three this season, he also had three last season up to this point.
So, he’s not really off track, compared to each year he won the championship. Still not convinced?
In 2006, Johnson had only one top 10 in the nine-race stretch between Watkins Glen International and Talladega Superspeedway. During that stretch, he had three finishes of 24th or worse. And, five of those nine races occurred in the Chase. Compare that to his current “slump” where he has four top 10s and two top 5s over seven races.
In the 14-race span from Charlotte in 2007 (not including Dover because Dover was run after Charlotte – see above) and New Hampshire (first Chase race), Johnson posted three finishes of 37th or worse – two of them were back to back. He also had two wins, six top 5s, and eight top 10s during that same stretch.
Granted those are decent stats, they’re hardly as dominant as some portray them to be because he finished worse than 11th nearly half of the races in that stretch.
In 2008, he fared better, earning three wins, five top 5s, and nine top 10s in that span. But that still means he finished 11th or worse nearly a third of the time. He also had two finishes of 33rd or worse over those races.
And 2009 wasn’t much different. In the same 14-race stretch (in 2009, the second race at Fontana was replaced with an Atlanta race), Johnson posted five top 5s, seven top 10s, but only one win. He finished outside the top 10 in seven races (half the time) with two finishes of 33rd or worse.
And yet, each and every time, he managed to still come out on top. This is because in the Chase, Johnson performs. In 2006, he won only one Chase race (Martinsville). But since then, he’s won at least three Chase races (twice, he’s won four).
In the 14 races leading up to the Chase (since 2006), Johnson’s best average finish is 11.1. In the Chase, his best average finish is 5th in 2007. His worst Chase-race finishing average is 10.8, in 2006, still better than his best average leading up to the Chase.
So, it’s a bit premature to say that Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 team should be worried. The team is still within its range, based on previous championship seasons. So there is nothing to indicate, at least up to this point, that he is any further away from winning a championship than he has ever been. Thus, it’s too early to worry about the No. 48’s performance.