Johnson searching for resurgence on high banks of Dover

Jimmie Johnson, right (NASCAR via Getty Images)

DOVER — There is no question that when Jimmie Johnson enters the gate at Dover International Speedway, a hefty dose of confidence begins to ooze through his veins.

Johnson, mired in a career-long 33-race winless skid, can certainly use all the positivity he can get as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series storms into Dover today in preparation of Sunday’s AAA 400 Drive for Autism race.

The one-mile, concrete-surfaced, high-banked monster of a track at Dover has been one that has been unusually kind to Johnson throughout his remarkable career.

After all, he has driven to an unprecedented 11 career victories in the Cup Series at the track nicknamed the “Monster Mile,” leaving NASCAR legends Richard Petty and Bobby Allison in the dust, as they are tied for second all-time with seven wins apiece at the track.

Fittingly, Johnson’s last triumph came at Dover last June when he chased down and passed Kyle Larson in the closing laps to crash the young driver’s victory lane celebration plans.

Things since then have been shockingly quiet for Johnson, a seven-time Cup Series champion and winner of 83 Cup races in his career, which is tied for sixth on the all-time winner’s list with Cale Yarborough.

Some point to his age as he is now 42, nearly two decades older than the majority of his fellow drivers in the Monster Energy Series. Others point to the fact that the competition has merely caught up to him.

However, if the past is any indication, don’t count him out for a return to prominence this weekend — and even he admits it would be nice to stop talking about his winless streak.

“I’m reminded every week of a streak that’s not one that you want to be reminded of,” Johnson said. “But I’m not losing sleep over it. I know I’m going to win races. I know this team is going to win races. I know we’re going to compete for championships. It’s just getting all our stuff right.

“I think people often take for granted how competitive pro sports are and how competitive this garage area is. And, although we’ve been able to do some pretty amazing things that have never been done before, I think it’s unfair to believe that it can last forever.”

Chase Elliott, son of former NASCAR champion Bill Elliott, laughed when asked about Johnson’s slump.

“I would like to have his slump, I don’t know about everybody else.” said Elliott, one of Johnson’s teammates at Hendrick Motorsports. “Everybody tries to ride on the age thing (and) that is just so not true. You don’t forget how to drive. You don’t change your driving habits.

“You don’t just do all that in the course of a couple of years and the guy is still one of if not the greatest driver ever to come through NASCAR. I would say the best-ever without question.”

Johnson, a native of El Cajon, California, is certainly the best driver all-time at Dover.

Consider that entering Sunday’s race, Johnson’s 11 wins at the “Monster Mile” puts him just one victory shy of the combined total Dover wins of the rest of the field, which has accumulated 12.

In the last 13 races at Dover, Johnson is the only repeat winner. He has won five times at the speedway during that span while no other driver has won more than once.

He has also led 3,105 laps at the high-banked, one-mile oval — also the most all-time — ahead of legendary drivers Allison (2,803), Jeff Gordon (2,396), Petty (2,205) and Dale Earnhardt (2,151).

The dominance never comes easy — even for Johnson, who pulled off an unbelievable sweep of both races at Dover in 2002 during his rookie season.

“Dover is really a tricky place,” he said. “There are usually quite a few caution flags, so you have to find a balance between a ‘green’ track for the first 10 or 15 laps to a longer run where there is a lot of rubber laid down on the track on a longer green flag run. Finding your balance is probably the most challenging thing at Dover.

“I love Dover. I wish we raced there more than twice a year. It’s a great race for this Lowe’s for Pros team and I absolutely cannot wait to get there.”

Johnson hopes he can free himself from the burden of the seemingly endless winless slump when the checkered flag waves on Sunday afternoon.

“I do hold myself to a very high level of expectation, but I just think that in society today it’s real easy …. it doesn’t matter if it’s our sport or another sport, there are some unfair expectations put on people and on teams and on individuals, and I think people often forget how difficult it is to compete at a pro level,” Johnson said.

“This year, we’ve improved every week and have seen great strides. So, I’m very optimistic that success is out there in front of us and around the corner.”

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