|Peaking at the right time|
Five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson took his time ramping up in 2012. A first lap crash and 42nd-place finish in the season opener at Daytona put him in an early hole, and through the first 10 races of the season, he climbed no higher than sixth in championship points.
As the summer heated up, however, Johnson’s Lowe’s Chevrolet team gradually began to hit stride. A win in the Bojangles Southern 500 at Darlington on May 12 was followed two weeks later with a score on the Monster Mile at Dover. He won again at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last month, and led in the late going at Pocono Raceway two weeks ago until a tangle with Matt Kenseth on the final restart left him 14th at the finish. At Watkins Glen, a track where Johnson has historically struggled, he drove to an impressive, third-place finish that lifted him to the top of the Sprint Cup point standings for the first time this year.
Timing, they say, is everything. And with the Chase now looming large, Johnson’s bid for a sixth Sprint Cup Series title appears to be running right on track.
“It’s a big deal to lead the points,” said Johnson recently. “Some people think it’s not important, since they reset everything at the start of the Chase. But I disagree. I want to be the man on top. I want everyone to see the No. 48 at the head of the pack and know that if they want to win the championship, they’re going to have to deal with me.”
At midseason, he and crew chief Chad Knaus bickered periodically over their in-car radio, inspiring speculation that their run as NASCAR’s top tandem could be coming to an end. They responded to that adversity like champions always do; by redoubling their effort and fine-tuning their performance, just in time for the Chase.
A handful of contenders have shown the consistency necessary to win the 2012 championship. Keselowski and defending series champion Tony Stewart have shown the ability to win multiple races. Only Johnson, however, has managed to do both.
No other driver has more than nine Top-5 finishes this season. Johnson has 11. He, Keselowski and Stewart top the wins list, with three apiece.
There seem to be no chinks in Johnson’s competitive armor, and that should come as no surprise.
Photos: Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR