By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jimmie Johnson’s quest to win a record-tying seventh championship has been burning for nearly three years at Hendrick Motorsports. Johnson wants that title. Chad Knaus wants that title. Rick Hendrick wants that title.
Oh, how easy it would be for the no. 48 team to coast through the next two weeks, to look only at the Nov. 20 season finale and the opportunity they have to reach the top of NASCAR.
They won’t. This is “can’t stop, won’t stop” time and these guys are on a mission.
And in this year of the ho-hum playoffs, it may be the storybook ending NASCAR needs.
Johnson, the most celebrated driver of the last 15 years, won his ninth race at Martinsville Speedway on Sunday to lock down a spot in NASCAR’s final four. He has not been in this position under the elimination format introduced before the 2014 season, when Johnson was still celebrating his sixth title.
The drive for #Se7en — the moniker he’s used on Twitter the last two-plus seasons — sputtered out early the last two years. And even through a long stretch of this season, Johnson hardly seemed to be a legitimate contender as the Hendrick cars struggled to keep pace with Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and Kevin Harvick.
There was a period of 15 races this year where Johnson had just three top-five finishes. Hendrick was far from pleased. The boss sent his cars to the wind tunnel, became a constant sight to his drivers and teams. Everyone turned it up a notch, and Hendrick could see the turnaround coming together.
“Sometimes you’re not as good as you look, you’re not as bad as you look,” Hendrick said. “I don’t think we were as bad. Now, we were pretty terrible back April, May. We started picking up speed, getting to the front, leading some laps.
“I felt like we could be at Homestead, but there’s no guarantee. There are a whole lot of people in the garage that thought they’d be at Homestead that won’t be at Homestead.”
Once Johnson won at Charlotte to advance into the third round, the first time he had made it this far in the Chase, he became a sudden lock for Homestead. He’s great at Martinsville, has won the last four November races at Texas, and has an average finish of 7.8 at Phoenix. But he locked his championship spot down in the first race of this segment, and now has the luxury to coast for two weeks.
Knaus had yet to wring the champagne out of his firesuit following Sunday’s victory before he was already contemplating a strategy.
“We need to now sit back, look at our car allocation and make sure that we’re taking the best product that we possibly can to Homestead,” he said. “When I get to the shop, we’re going to get together, look at what it is we’ve got, we may make a quick decision, maybe make a change.”
But he cautioned that doesn’t mean he’ll order Johnson to cruise around Texas and Phoenix. It means they are in such good shape, they can play with the field for two weeks.
This is what the no. 48 team does to opponents. It kicks its program into another gear and saps all the energy out of its opponents. Jeff Gordon saw it firsthand in 2007 when he was racing his teammate for the title. When he thought he had Johnson on the ropes, Johnson strung together four consecutive victories in the Chase to put Gordon away.
When Johnson grabbed that fourth win, Gordon — the greatest driver of a generation — went to victory lane and bowed to his teammate.
His strength is in his demeanor, and it absolutely gets under the skin of his opponents. He’s so cool and calm in public, tries always to be a professional. His attempt to extinguish a potential fire with Harvick last year at Chicago led Harvick to punch him in the chest before Johnson had even said a word.
When he didn’t get out of Denny Hamlin’s way fast enough Sunday at Martinsville, Hamlin moved him and loudly complained about Johnson on his team radio.
Asked about it after the race, Johnson literally laughed out loud.
“I’m puzzled that he had to move me like he did,” Johnson said. “I just can’t roll over. I prefer to race people cleanly. I could have easily taken the easy route and moved him when he came back to take over the lead, and I didn’t. I hope that showed him that, ‘Look, man, I don’t have a beef.’
“Man, I’m out there to win. We got points on the line. We got a championship in the line. I got accused of racing hard? I’ll take that as a compliment.”
Johnson has been to Homestead nine times before with a chance to win the title. He delivered six times. The situation will be different this year; all drivers will be even and the highest finisher will claim the title.
Johnson hopes to show the next two weeks that he’s untouchable and nobody stands a chance in this drive for #Se7en.