The Jimmie Johnson who showed up to his Saturday morning media availability at Indianapolis sounded like the driver who chasing another championship. He didn’t sound like a driver amid the longest winless drought of his career and facing the longshot possibility of not making the playoffs.
“My optimism to turn things around is because I’ll never give up,” Johnson said. “I just won’t. There’s a lot of reason for that, first and foremost is me and who I am. Secondly, I drive for Hendrick Motorsports. We will figure it out. It might not come at the pace we want it to, but we will figure it out.
“I have to show up every week and have a clear mind and start on a clean sheet of paper. I think carrying anything is bad, and I have carried stuff from track to track and it’s not been beneficial, so the best thing I can do for my team is show up as if I’m in the middle of that five-championship stretch and have that swagger, and show up ready to roll. That’s one of my responsibilities to do each week. So, I’m ready. Let’s go.”
His situation for Sunday is simple, if not a longshot: If Johnson were to be overtaken in the points by teammate Alex Bowman and the winner is a driver outside the playoff grid, Johnson would miss the playoffs.
Johnson and company have not been to victory lane in the Cup Series since June 4, 2017 at Dover. Going into the regular season finale, Johnson has just two top-five finishes this season and has led a grand total of 29 laps.
But he’s a four-time winner at Indianapolis and says his success at the track is because he’s taken to the unique circuits on the schedule — just like Dover and Martinsville, where he’s won a combined 20 times. Last year Johnson, whose car was blowing up at the time, wrecked in Turn 3 going three-wide for the lead off a late restart.
“This could be a very big turnaround race for us, I definitely believe that and feel it,” Johnson said of this weekend. “We qualified well here last year, we raced well here, had a shot to win if it wasn’t for the oil leak. I think the 78 and 18 were the class of the field and we were in that next group, so if we do our part I think we can have a shot at the win.”
Winning and leading laps is what Johnson is eager to get back to doing, and it has played a part in some of the mistakes he’s made this season.
For instance, Johnson shouldered the blame for the rash of problems the team had last weekend at Darlington, saying he messed up in the second round of qualifying which led to him running wide open in Turn 4 and hitting the wall, and then in the race compounding the team’s mistake of a loose wheel by missing pit road. Eventually the team retired from the race with an oil pump issue.
Johnson was caught up in accidents in both Daytona events and also crashed at Texas in the spring. With four DNFs this season, his team is approaching its career-high of seven in one season (2004 and 2017) while also on pace for his worst average finish in any of his 17 full seasons.
All of that combined with the fact that Johnson has never gone winless in any of his previous 16 full seasons would make another victory at Indianapolis significant in many ways.
“I couldn’t even put into words what it would mean and do,” Johnson said. “We’ve worked so hard and had some good moments along the way that could have turned into great moments and mistakes on my behalf, team, whatever it might be — bad luck, misfortune — we’ve just not been able to capitalize on opportunities that have been there. Plus we’ve had a tough year.
“So, it’s been extremely frustrating, extremely difficult to live through but we are all still very eager to turn it around and know that we will. A win is the way to turn it around. We’ve seen this team get hot at times and we’ve been unstoppable, and a win would be the starting point of that. So, I’m very hopeful we can get that done this week.”