FONTANA, Calif. – Despite having two top-10 finishes in the first four races of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, Jimmie Johnson is in no way satisfied with where he and his Hendrick Motorsports team are at.
Johnson is in the midst of a near two-year-long, 63-race winless drought: the longest such stretch of his career at NASCAR’s top level.
To make matters rougher, the seven-time Cup champion’s average finish this year is 15th, a far cry from the days when he would string six to 10 wins together over the course of a 36-race season.
However, if there’s a place where Johnson may be able to rekindle some of his former glory, it’s the two-mile Auto Club Speedway, site of Sunday’s Auto Club 400 and the final race of NASCAR’s Western Swing.
Johnson is a six-time winner at Fontana (2002, ’07, ’08, ’09, ’10, ’16) and has never finished off the lead lap in 24 career Cup Series starts at the track closest to his childhood home in El Cajon, Calif.
He leads all drivers in wins, top-fives (13), top-10s (17), laps led (980) and average finish (7.2) there.
“There are tracks that a driver can make a difference at. Dover has always been one for me, and this track has been one, as well,” noted Johnson. “The one thing that is so different right now is we’re back to a package we’ve run two other times this year. We’re on a high wear track. I look at Atlanta. It did not go well. Atlanta is similar to this place. Is that a sign? We don’t really know yet.
“I’m hopeful that we’ve made our car better since Atlanta for this type of environment,” Johnson added. “That’s what I think the whole Hendrick Motorsports crowd is focused on right now.”
Johnson quietly captured an eighth-place finish last weekend at Arizona’s ISM Raceway, leading four laps around the one-mile desert oval en route to his best result of the season to-date.
“I think last weekend showed that if we have a mistake-free race, we can run in the top five and in the top 10 … and (after) how last year went, that’s a step in the right direction,” Johnson said. “We do have some pride in that. Clearly we’re putting a lot of time and work and effort to get better. So, it’s nice to have those better funs. But it’s not where we want to be. It’s not where I want to be, or Mr. Hendrick or Kevin (Meendering) or this whole team.
“We’re trying to celebrate the small victories, but at the same time, if you look at the speed that the No. 18 (Kyle Busch) had on the field and his ability to pass, we want that and we’re not going to stop until we get that.”
As Johnson’s winless drought has grown, so has his desire to snap the career-long losing streak.
It’s led to a slightly different mantra for the future NASCAR Hall of Famer in his efforts to return to victory lane.
“Without a doubt,” Johnson said when asked if his personal racing code has changed. “I’m not into crashing cars, though. I’m not into crashing other people for the win. So, moving somebody out of the way for a win is the way you need to race.
“Really, the thing that I find so funny is people want to say that NASCAR has lost its character and that drivers are scared and they won’t move somebody out of the way, and then a guy does it (at Martinsville) and you have this backlash. I don’t know, but I know we want to win.”