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Jimmie Johnson delivers reverberating message with win at Charlotte

A relatively straightforward path to the championship round awaits Jimmie Johnson after winning Sunday at Charlotte.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Twenty-four races between wins. Nearly seven months since he last celebrated in victory lane.

If anyone is supposed to be immune to lengthy winless streaks, it's Jimmie Johnson, the man who rewrote the record book and whose accomplishments put him in the discussion among NASCAR's all-time best.

Yet 2016 has been anything but normal for Johnson, or Hendrick Motorsports as a whole. In a season dominated by the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing, Johnson slid into an uncustomary secondary role where he entered the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time not being heralded as a championship contender.

Dismissing Johnson's chances wasn't without justification. Before Sunday's win at Charlotte Motor Speedway, his last victory occurred in late March and in the days and months in between, Hendrick endured a summer run of futility where not only did its four teams fail to finish in the top 10 in three consecutive races, but didn't lead a single lap for the first time since 2001.

"We don't sugar-coat things internally," Johnson said. "We might lie to you a little bit and act like everything is OK, but we get behind closed doors, we're realists, and we were not happy with where our cars were during the summer."

Attempting to compensate for the deficiencies within Hendrick, Johnson and the No. 48 began pressing. All that did, though, was present a new set of problems in the form of uncharacteristic blunders.

Johnson committed four pit road speeding penalties in the 10 races preceding Charlotte and admittedly overdrove leading to a crash in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, while his crew earned five penalties during that same span for infractions like going over the pit wall too soon and not controlling tires.

Sloppy mistakes are the antithesis of a team that rolled off a record five straight championships from 2006-2010 and added a sixth in 2013. But that's been the state of Johnson's No. 48 team, even as Hendrick made notable performance gains since the Chase began last month.

On Sunday, there were no miscues on the track or on pit road. Johnson drove flawlessly and his crew was equally the same on pit road. It was a vintage display by a team that some thought would be among the first knocked out of the playoffs, and instead earned an automatic spot in the semifinal round for the first time since NASCAR introduced the elimination format in 2014.

"We can't sit back and celebrate too much on this," Johnson said. "We've got to buckle down and get to work tomorrow and keep advancing our race cars."

Johnson's advancement should be viewed as a sign of things to come, with the very real scenario he will eventually be among the four drivers vying for the title in the Nov. 20 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. As Round 3 sets up quite favorably for the six-time champ, with Martinsville Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, and Phoenix International Raceway venues where he typically excels.

His eight wins and 7.5 average finish leads all active full-time drivers at Martinsville; he's won the past four fall races at Texas; and he holds the best average finish and ranks second in wins at Phoenix. Johnson will be a contender in each of those events, and even if he cannot record a victory, his consistency should be enough to qualify him for the championship round.

Although the end result may not be a record-tying seventh Sprint Cup, Johnson at least now possesses a realistic shot of equaling the mark held by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Something that didn't seem a possibility mere weeks ago when just getting out of the first bracket was thought to be difficult.

"Good things ahead for us," Johnson said. "Definitely very optimistic now."

A reverberating statement signaling not just that Johnson has his mojo back, but also sending a wave of trepidation for those who must oppose him in his march to Homestead.