Johnson back among the leaders in Phoenix

Image by Thacker/LAT

Johnson back among the leaders in Phoenix

NASCAR

Johnson back among the leaders in Phoenix

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Jimmie Johnson wouldn’t call his eighth-place finish at ISM Raceway a victory-style performance, but it was a solid day for the No. 48 team.

For the first time since Charlotte last fall, Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro finished inside the top 10 at a non-restrictor-plate track. Phoenix was nothing extraordinary by stratospheric standards expected of Johnson and Co., but it did find them back among the leaders.

Starting Sunday’s TicketGuardian 500 in ninth, Johnson scored points in Stage 2 and led for four laps early in the final stage after peeling off pit road quickly following a two-tire stop.

Importantly, Phoenix is Johnson’s second top-10 finish of the season, having started the season with a ninth in the Daytona 500.

“The guy at Hendrick have been working so hard to get us more, and we took a good step in the right direction [this weekend],” said Johnson.

Johnson finished 10th in Stage 2 last weekend at Las Vegas and was running solidly inside the top 15 when he began fading late, finishing 19th. The week before Vegas, Johnson was never in the conversation as he quietly struggled to finish 24th in Atlanta.

“We are learning each week and we still have some catching up to do, but certainly a solid performance here,” said Johnson after a productive afternoon in Phoenix.

“Kevin [Meendering] called a great race. It was really tricky with strategy — two tires; four tires. The crew had to adjust mid pit stop once, go from four to two, and everybody responded really well.”

Suffering through the first winless season of his career in 2017, the seven-time champion has been struggling for some time. While a few drivers complained after the race how hard it was to pass at ISM Raceway, Johnson said on pit road — as reported on Twitter by Bob Pockrass of Fox Sports — that he’s had trouble passing anyone for “the last year and a half, two years.”

Johnson had an average running position of 8.1 Sunday afternoon.

“Definitely a strong performance,” he said. “But we need more, we need to find more. And on a short track where grip is so important, our guys did a nice job all weekend long of bringing a little bit more. I’m excited about that. We weathered the storm on two tires, on four, and ended up with a nice top 10.”

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