By Jerry Bonkowski
Jimmie Johnson sailed through the 2015 26-race Sprint Cup regular season, winning four races, starting with a triumph at Atlanta in the second race of the campaign.
Then came the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup. Johnson, based upon both what he had done in the regular season, as well as his prior six Cup championships, was considered one of the favorites to win the title yet again.
But somehow, some way, Johnson became the biggest first round casualty, so to speak, being eliminated at a track (Dover International Speedway) where he had won a career-high 10 races in the past.
Johnson’s elimination shocked the NASCAR world – and still does. How could someone so good, so talented, so successful, be knocked out so quickly?
One thing we’ve learned about Johnson over all his half-dozen championship years is when he suffers a setback, he bounces back stronger and better than ever.
He simply does not tolerate mediocrity or anything less than winning.
That’s why Sunday’s win at Atlanta was so big. It assured him a spot in this year’s Chase – and a chance to redeem himself from last year’s embarrassment.
Johnson now heads to Las Vegas for this Sunday’s Kobalt 400. It’s a track where he’s won four times and at a race that is sponsored by a subsidiary of his longtime primary sponsor, Lowe’s Home Improvement stores.
I won’t be surprised to see Johnson go on to win at Las Vegas, and for that matter, the other two tracks on the western swing, Phoenix and Fontana.
Between Atlanta and the three western races, Johnson has won 18 times, just under one-quarter of his 76 wins.
If that doesn’t tell you he’s potentially ready to go on a roll, check back with me after the western swing. I won’t be surprised to see Johnson have two, three or maybe even four wins by then.
Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have made it almost an art form on how to bounce back from adversity.
The best example of that was 2006. Johnson was nearly 160 points out of the championship just four races into the Chase – and then roared back six races later to win the first of five consecutive Cup championships.
And I have a hunch that after how last season’s championship goal ended so abruptly for Johnson, Knaus and the No. 48 team, they are going to come back with perhaps the greatest vengeance they ever have.
There’s more than enough motivation, not to mention – if you believe it – numerology that back up my contention.
First, Johnson came into 2015 feeling as if his seventh Sprint Cup championship was all but a foregone conclusion. Even with all the success he’s experienced to date, there’s still the biggest prize that Johnson has not earned: to tie NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most championships (seven each).
Even if he doesn’t break that hallowed record, just tying the two greatest drivers in NASCAR history would ultimately serve to put Johnson in the most exclusive club the sport has ever seen.
And then there’s the numerology aspect.
Johnson won five straight titles from 2006 to 2010, only to fall short the following two seasons. Then he won title No. 6 in 2013, only to fall short the last two seasons.
Some might say he’s due to win yet again in 2016, as a result. If that happens, you can point to Sunday’s win at Atlanta as what started it all.