When NASCAR's playoffs roll around, Jimmie Johnson is customarily the driver the rest of the garage knows they'll have to primarily contend with for the Sprint Cup championship. It's what happens when you win a record five consecutive titles and six within an eight-year span.
But as the 2016 edition of the Chase for the Sprint Cup commences this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, there is little talk of Johnson winning a seventh championship and tying Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the all-time Cup Series mark. Few think Johnson possesses a realistic chance of making a deep playoff run and overcoming the Toyota-backed teams of Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr., who combined to win 13 of 26 regular season races and lead 56 percent of all laps.
By their lofty standards, Johnson and the No. 48 team led by crew chief Chad Knaus experienced a lackluster regular season. After Johnson won two of the first five events, he had a summer slide during which he recorded just five top-10 finishes in 17 races with a best result of third. He's on pace for a career-low in top-10s and laps led, and his average finish of 15.3 equals a career-worst.
"Hell, I'd rather be dominating and be on top and be the top pick," Johnson said Thursday at Chase Media Day in the Southside of Chicago. "I don't like where we're at."
Johnson's slump wasn't exclusive to the No. 48 team, but part of a collective slump throughout Hendrick Motorsports that also impacted Johnson's teammates (Chase Elliott, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne). Hendrick went three straight races in which none of its four cars recorded a top-10 finish or led a single lap.
Adding to the frustration, Hendrick has been routinely outperformed by two organizations it supplies equipment to: Stewart-Haas Racing, which receives engines, chassis and technical data; and Chip Ganassi Racing, which receives solely engines. SHR's Kevin Harvick led the regular season in top-five finishes, top-10s, and average finish and ranked third in laps led, while CGR's Kyle Larson won Aug. 28 at Michigan International Speedway and is heralded as a Chase dark horse.
That Hendrick is being beaten by other teams using Hendrick equipment is something Johnson has a hard time grasping. The speed discrepancy hindering Hendrick is not an issue of horsepower, Johnson said, but related to aerodynamics.
"They take our best equipment, that's part of the deal, fully refined, what we're racing, then their engineering staff gets to work on it and make it better," Johnson said. "... It hurts to be outrun by somebody in your equipment. (SHR and CGR) are big companies with a lot of smart people, and we're handing them a race-winning package that they're then making better.
"It's a tricky situation to be in. But from a business standpoint, it's something that we have to do to."
As the No. 48 team has uncharacteristically struggled, driver and crew alike have pressed -- and that's only compounded the problem. Johnson committed four pit road speeding penalties since mid-May 7, and admittedly overdrove during the Sept. 4 race at Darlington Raceway leading to a crash.
"I feel like we've had to operate and push ourselves really hard since the start of the season to get the wins and to be where we want to be," Johnson said. "That just leads to mistakes. It's hard to stand at the plate and swing for a homerun every time. That's what we're trying to do, create better cars so we don't have to do that."
Johnson is optimistic he can avoid an early playoff exit for a third consecutive year if he exercises greater patience, maximizing his finishing position every week. Two of his best tracks, Dover and Martinsville, are among the 10 Chase tracks -- and though winning automatically advances a driver to the subsequent round, points still determine who transfers to fill out the next bracket.
"We're working hard," Johnson said. "There's a lot of optimism and a lot of great things happening. We just need to deliver consistently and execute at the track."