By Ryan Isley
If seven is indeed a lucky number, drivers in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series should be aware of Jimmie Johnson this Sunday in the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500.
It’s the seventh race of the season.
Johnson has won at Texas Motor an all-time series best seven times.
And Johnson also has seven MENCS series championships.
So, while Johnson heads to Texas Motor Speedway mired in a slump that for the second straight season has seen him have just one top-10 finish in the season’s first six races, the number seven is just what might lead the driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to get back on track.
In 29 career starts at Texas, Johnson has the seven wins, but also has 15 top-5s and 21 top-10s. Those two numbers are the best of any driver in Texas Motor Speedway history, a track which has hosted 34 races. He also has two other finishes of 11th, meaning he has finished 11th or better in 23 of 29 races at the track, an astounding 79.3%. His average finish of 8.8 is the third-best of any track in his MENCS career, as are the seven wins. His 1,041 laps led are 158 more than the next closest driver in track history, Matt Kenseth with 883. Kyle Busch is the closest active driver with 748 laps led.
In the last 12 races at Texas, Johnson has six wins, including last season’s spring race, and has nine finishes of 6th or better. In his last 10 spring races at Texas, Johnson has two wins, two runner-up finishes and nine finishes of 8th or better.
Last season, Johnson put to bed the rumors of his demise when he took home the checkered flag in the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 and then backed it up with a win the next week at Bristol Motor Speedway in the Food City 500.
The similarities between the beginning of his 2017 season and this one are almost eerie. His only top-10 finish was a 9th-place finish, he finished in the 30s in the Daytona 500 (34th in 2017 and 38th this season), one finish in the 20s (21st at Auto Club Speedway in 2017 and 27th at Atlanta this season) and he finished 15th at Martinsville both seasons in the race before heading to Texas.
Johnson’s start to 2017 was just a little bit better than his start so far in 2018. After seven races last season, Johnson was 14th in points, had led 28 laps, finished on the lead lap five times and had an average finish was 18.2. in 2018, he is 17th in points, has yet to lead a single lap, has just two lead leap finishes and has an average finish of 19.2.
Johnson needs to turn around his 2018 season quickly.
The longer this drought gets, the more there will be rumblings that the once seemingly unbeatable champion is on his last legs. And you don’t have to look far to see why those rumblings have existed over the past two seasons.
After winning his MENCS record-tying seventh series title in 2016, the wheels seemed to start falling off for Johnson and his team last year.
In 2017, Johnson won just one time after his win in week 8 at Bristol, giving him three wins on the season. It was his worst season in terms of win since winning just two times in 2011, and just the second time in 14 seasons that he failed to record at least four wins. In his 16 full-time seasons in the MENCS heading into 2018, Johnson had more seasons of 6 or more wins (six) than he did of seasons with three or less wins (four).
It wasn’t just the wins that were hard to come by for Johnson in 2017, though. He set career lows in top-5s (four) and top-10s (11). The four top-5s snapped a streak of 14 straight seasons with at least 11 top-5s and was the first time since his rookie season in which he failed to reach double digits in top-5s. As a rookie in 2002, he finished in the top-5 six times. 2017 also snapped the streak Johnson had going of 15 straight seasons with at least 16 top-10s. In those 16 seasons, he had a career-high 24 top-10s five times and had 20 or more top-10s every season from 2002 to 2016.
Another issue for Johnson is he is not the only driver struggling at Hendrick Motorsports right now. After only having four wins last season (three by Johnson, one by Kasey Kahne), the four-car Hendrick team has started off 2018 slow, with just two top-5s (both by Chase Elliott) and five top-10s in the first six races. Alex Bowman leads all Hendrick drivers in the points standings, sitting 14th. Johnson is 17th, Elliott is 18th and William Byron is 20th.
Elliott led all Hendrick drivers last season, finishing 5th in the standings, giving Hendrick its 17th straight season with at least one driver finishing 6th or better and its 15th season in those 17 with a driver finishing at least 5th. That includes eight series titles, seven by Johnson and Jeff Gordon’s final one in 2001. In the last 24 seasons, Hendrick has had at least one driver finish 5th or better in 19 seasons, including 12 championships.
Johnson could use a streak starting at Texas similar to what he had last year, with two wins and four straight finishes of 11th or better. If he can pull that off, he just might be able to get this season back on track, not only for himself, but for Hendrick. All it takes is a win to make it into the playoffs, where anything can happen.
We have all seen what happens when Johnson gets on a roll. If he gets on one this year, his lucky number at the end might just be eight.