For 267 laps Sunday evening in Joliet, Illinois, it was business as it once always had been for Jimmie Johnson & Co.
There were no struggles, and no questions about what’s wrong. The disappointment that has enveloped the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion for the last 758 days, or 76 races, didn’t exist.
Johnson’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was fast. Fast enough to be a contender on the good side of the leaderboard, and to spend some laps at the front of the field, but most importantly, again be a relevant part of the race. Things that Johnson made a career doing from 2002 through Dover on June 4, 2017, which was the last time he won a Cup Series race.
For 267 laps and 400 miles at Chicagoland Speedway, Superman looked like Superman.
The performance left Johnson telling TV viewers that his team was smiling. He would later write on Twitter how it had felt good to be in the mix. Another post reminded everyone how the famed 48 “was rolling” in Chicagoland.
Considering that Johnson has had good days on and off during the last few seasons, it would be premature to declare all the problems in Camp 48 have been solved. That said, Johnson of course needed such a performance in the Camping World 400. And he wasn’t the only one.
The sport needed it. Its fans needed it. The competitors and media also needed it.
Everyone, even the critics, should be able to admit that deep down, seeing Johnson be Johnson was a welcome sight because watching his fall from grace has been sad. Once upon a time, the competition could merely tug on Superman’s cape. Now seeing it ripped off and repeatedly stomped on is painful.
Johnson hasn’t just been uncompetitive, he’s been terrible. Bottom of the basement, sometimes can’t get out of his own way, terrible. His often finishing as the worst of the four Hendrick cars isn’t how it’s supposed to be. Seeing Johnson getting lapped and left in the dust by drivers he used to go door-to-door with on a weekly basis makes you want to get your eyes checked.
During the years Johnson and then crew chief Chad Knaus looked like they could do no wrong, failure was something many hoped and rooted for. That was when winning was second nature to Johnson, was expected, and practically guaranteed at certain racetracks; back when Johnson was collecting championship after championship and piling on the wins, and embarrassing his rivals with how easy he made it look.
Johnson earned a career-low number of top-10 finishes the last two years with 11. Last year he went winless and finished the worst he has ever been in the point standings, 14th, after being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. Eliminated because, holy cow, Johnson made a mistake in the Charlotte chicane coming to the checkered flag.
This is not the same team that was once considered invincible, and the golden horseshoe that Kevin Harvick proclaimed they had “stuck up their ass” back in February 2010 is long gone. Yet there’s been no joy in continuously watching Johnson fail to be lucky or good.
Chicago wasn’t flashy or extraordinary, it was how it should be. A brief respite from what had become a Sunday routine of sadly wondering if seeing Johnson all too often flailing around outside the top 15 will be how the final years of his career play out.