By Jerry Bonkowski
Then again, he never really left in the first place.
But if Jimmie Johnson continues winning races like he did in this past Sunday’s FedEx 400 Benefitting Autism Speaks at Dover International Speedway, NASCAR might as well put Johnson’s name on the 2015 championship trophy ahead of time.
Given the storylines of 2015 thus far, so much attention has been paid to Jeff Gordon’s final year, Kyle Busch’s comeback, Kurt Busch’s personal life woes, as well as the performance of drivers like Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr., who each have 12 top-10 finishes in the first 13 races (including 7 runner-up showings for Harvick).
But in the whole big scheme of things, how much attention has really been placed on Johnson in 2015? Even with three wins coming into Dover, he’s almost been a media or fan afterthought.
But after his Dover win, suddenly Johnson is front-and-center and ready to dominate the rest of the season.
Even though he’s already been dominating so much already.
Think about it, Johnson now has won four of the first 13 races on the Sprint Cup schedule. That’s about 30 percent of the races.
If he keeps up that pace through the remaining 23 races, Johnson has the potential to have the greatest season he’s ever had in NASCAR.
Up to now, his best season was 2007, when he won a personal high of 10 races en route to his second of what would go on to become a five consecutive season championship run.
Add in his sixth title in 2013, and Johnson is now at the point where that elusive seventh title – which would tie him with NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for most Cu championships by a driver (7) – is perhaps closer than it ever has been.
Sure, Johnson fell short of winning No. 7 last year, but even at 39 years old, he isn’t just in his prime, he looks stronger than he’s ever been.
In a way, Johnson has gone from a guy who likes – or maybe as much as craved – the spotlight to become more of a worker bee that goes about his job race after race with almost mechanical precision and robot-like effort.
That he already has 74 wins before the age of 40 tells me a number of things. One, he can very easily win 100 or more races before he calls it a career.
Second, given his intense dedication to physical fitness the last couple of years, Johnson is a 39-year-old in a 25-year-old’s body. He’s in such great shape that he can potentially mirror Mark Martin and race well past 50 years old – and race effectively, not as a start-and-parker.
The sky is the limit when it comes to how many races Johnson can still win this year. With his Dover win, the NASCAR schedule is now at the halfway point of the so-called “regular season.”
There are 13 races remaining before the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup field is finalized and embarks upon its 10-race journey to crown a new champion.
Johnson is arguably at the best point of any driver out there right now because with all that he and crew chief Chad Knaus learned in last year’s Chase – the right things to do and the mistakes to avoid – you can take it to the bank that Johnson and Knaus and the rest of the 48 team will perhaps be more difficult to beat in 2015 than in any other previous season.
Before the season, Johnson said “everything has to come together” for him to have a shot at his seventh championship.
I don’t know about you, but with four wins already in hand, I’d say everything has already started coming together very nicely.
And there’s still a lot more to come.
Jerry Bonkowski writes for NASCAR Talk at NBCSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @JerryBonkowski.