For Jimmie Johnson, Martinsville Speedway has traditionally been the Land of Milk and Honey.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver leads all active drivers with nine career victories at the historic Virginia half-mile, and has been a dominant force there for as long as most fans can remember.
Sunday, however, the seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion was a non-factor from start to finish, lapped three times under green-flag conditions before claiming a troubling, 24th-place finish.
Johnson and his Kevin Meendering-led team gave cause for optimism earlier in the weekend, pacing an early practice round. But that fast lap came during a mock qualifying run – when most teams were already in race mode – skewing the speed charts in favor of the No. 48 Chevrolet. Johnson qualified only 12th-best Saturday, and when the green flag flew in Sunday’s STP 500, he and the No. 48 Ally Chevrolet began a slow and steady fade to the back of the pack.
Johnson was lapped by leader Brad Keselowski in the race’s second stage, and lost two more circuits in the final round. He regained one of those lost circuits by taking a wave around in the late going, but no amount of pit-road gerrymandering could overcome a shockingly ill-handling race car. Johnson spent the final 200 laps being passed by cars he has never raced before, and an average 2019 finish of 16.8 is cause for genuine concern.
His 24th-place finish extended a Martinsville slump that has seen him finish outside the Top-10 in eight of his last 10 starts. By comparison, the California native had just three finishes worse than 10th in 25 previous Martinsville races. He has not claimed a Martinsville Speedway grandfather clock since the fall of 2016, and has not finished better than 12th at the Virginia short track since then.
Johnson’s struggles have not been confined to Martinsville, either.
|For Johnson, the drought continues.|
He has not won a MENCS race since the AAA 400 Drive For Autism at Dover on June 4, 12017; a span of 65 consecutive races. Some of that drought rightfully lies at the feet of a new Chevrolet Camaro that has not rolled out as competitively as expected, and Hendrick Motorsports has also struggled to overcome the recent retirements of Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., as well as the departure of veteran Kasey Kahne at the end of the 2017 campaign.
Chase Elliott’s runner-up showing Sunday was Hendrick’s first Top-5 finish since Kansas last October; a span of 10 races. And while HMS is clearly struggling to regain its championship form, Team Jimmie has lagged behind both its Hendrick and Chevrolet brethren.
Alex Bowman spent considerable time in the Top-10 Sunday, before settling for 14th at the drop of the checkered flag. Chevy pilots Austin Dillon, Kurt Busch and Ty Dillon all ran in the Top-10 as well, before finishing 11th, 12th and 13th respectively. Johnson left the Old Dominion 15th in the championship standings, and his performance at a track he has traditionally dominated will do little to calm a justifiably jittery fan base.
Just three weeks ago, Johnson spoke optimistically after an eighth-place finish at ISM Raceway in Phoenix, saying, “We