A certain irony comes with Jimmie Johnson’s return to Michigan International Speedway.
One of NASCAR’s most decorated drivers, Johnson enters Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 with three wins this season — including last weekend’s Party in the Poconos 400 — but in his career, he has yet to win a race at MIS.
Less than a day after winning at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa., he acknowledged that the 2-mile superspeedway has been less than forgiving.
“How many times have we been close there and haven’t been able to finish it off?” Johnson said Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Hopefully we can keep this momentum and do that again at Michigan.”
Johnson, in fact, is 0 for 22 at the Brooklyn, Mich., track. Last August, the five-time Sprint Cup Series champion came close to cracking that goose egg.
So close that it seemed as if everyone was ready to hand Johnson the Pure Michigan 400 trophy.
Then something failed.
With less than six laps left in the 2012 race, Greg Biffle passed Johnson on the outside going into Turn 3, and Johnson’s car began to fade.
As Johnson approached the start/finish line at MIS, a trail of white smoke billowed from his car, and as he rounded the track one last time, he pulled toward the infield, signaling the end of his day.
The engine in Johnson’s car blew out, ending his chances for his first MIS win. Instead, Biffle won the race and tightened the points race less than a month before the start of NASCAR’s Chase for the Cup — eventually won by Michigan native Brad Keselowski.
Johnson didn’t speak with reporters immediately after the August race, but in a commentary posted on FoxSports.com two days after the Pure Michigan 400, Darrell Waltrip gave some insight into Johnson’s frame of mind following a race in which he started from the back of the field because of a prerace engine change and worked his way to the lead late in the race.
“Put yourself in his shoes,” wrote Waltrip, a three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion who is a motorsports analyst with Fox Sports. “You are only five laps from winning the race. You are only five laps from winning at a track that is on a very short list of tracks you have never won at before. You are five laps away from gaining three more bonus points to carry into the Chase and BOOM, your engine lets go.
“How frustrated would you be?”
Entering Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400, Johnson is back in familiar territory. The Southern California native drives for Hendrick Motorsports, is the Sprint Cup standings leader with 521 points — 51 ahead of Carl Edwards — and has nine top-10 finishes this season.
“I feel like we have some clarity right now in what the car likes and what it wants, and really, that’s the only thing we as a team go by and, really, any team does,” Johnson told reporters after winning the Party in the Poconos 400.
“There are a lot of times when you work on your stuff, and you test, and you race, and you build some theories. Sometimes your theories play out and you’re smart, and you’re here in victory lane, and other times they don’t.”
Johnson finished fifth in the 2012 Quicken Loans 400, won by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. After finishing third Sunday in Long Pond, Pa., Earnhardt deferred to Johnson.
“When it’s good for Jimmie, it’s equally good for us, in an indirect way,” Earnhardt said. “He’s one of the best drivers the sport has ever seen, and Chad Knaus is probably one of the smartest crew chiefs the the sport has ever seen. Very clever guy, calls a good race, puts together a good race car, got good guys.”
A week after finishing 17th in the FedEx 400 Benefiting Autism at Dover (Del.) International Speedway — NASCAR penalized Johnson for passing race leader Juan Pablo Montoya on a restart with less than 20 laps left — Johnson rallied Sunday at Pocono, leading 128 of 160 laps on the 2½-mile triangular track.
Biffle anticipates the same performance from Johnson and the Lowe’s Chevrolet team this weekend in Michigan, despite the fact that the numbers work against Johnson.
“They’re going to show up in Michigan and be fast,” Biffle said. “And when you’re on a roll, you’re on a roll. When you’ve got good stuff — just because he jumped [at Dover] — whatever happened, that’s not going to affect what they do this week.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.