FONTANA, Calif. – It may not have ended with a win, but Sunday’s Auto Club 400 did provide a much-needed dose of positivity and a solid result for seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson, who entered Auto Club Speedway on a career-long 10-race streak of finishing outside the top-10, utilized the comfort of his home race track to start what he hopes is a turnaround for his Hendrick Motorsports team after a dismal start to the year.
The El Cajon, Calif. native ran among the top 10 all day long, scoring his first stage points of the year after crossing the line fifth in the opening stage and hanging on to seventh at the end of the second stage.
Though his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 faded somewhat during the race’s final 68-lap green flag run, Johnson was able to salvage a ninth place finish in the end – his best run of the season so far.
The effort was also highest among the Hendrick quartet at Fontana and was Johnson’s best result since finishing seventh at Charlotte Motor Speedway last October.
Though Johnson cautioned onlookers about reading too much into one stronger race, he did admit afterwards that Hendrick Motorsports is starting to show signs of improvement as an organization.
Prior to Johnson’s run on Sunday, the Hendrick team’s only top-10 finishes all year came courtesy of Chase Elliott at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Arizona’s ISM Raceway.
“Each week we have been getting a little bit better,” said Johnson. “We’re definitely not happy with where we are right now, but we are seeing the improvements – we’ve been seeing that internally. We are making the cars drive better and better and we are getting more competitive.”
“This was a strong day for the Lowe’s Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. We’re not where we want to be right now, but we are getting closer every week.”
Johnson, who is Auto Club Speedway’s all-time leading winner with six victories, also noted that Sunday’s race felt different than in past years, with only three cautions outside of the two stage breaks and no major tire issues in the final third of the race.
“It just seemed like we had more durability with that left side tire on lower tire pressures,” said Johnson. “I don’t believe we had any issues relative to that and that is something we are always scared of here, especially (after) green flag stops when the tire pressures are low. We didn’t have that today, but we had some great pit stops.”
“(Crew chief) Chad (Knaus) called a great race, and we had a good solid day – so we will take it.”
Johnson, who endured three-straight finishes off the lead lap to start the season and was buried as low as 36th in points following the season-opening Daytona 500, jumped up seven spots to 18th in the standings after his top-10 effort on Sunday.
He may well have a solid shot at his first win of the season this coming weekend, however, as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Martinsville Speedway for the STP 500.
Johnson is the active wins leader at Martinsville with nine victories. His most recent win at the half-mile paper clip came in October of 2016, ultimately propelling him to his record-tying seventh championship.