Dale Earnhardt, Jr., may very well be NASCAR’s most popular driver. His legion of fans hopes he wins every time he and the other gentlemen start their engines.
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But Jimmie Johnson is expected to win.
A month ago, the six-time Sprint Cup series champion had been a stranger to Victory Lane throughout the early going of 2014. Now he has won three of the last four races, including Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
With owner Rick Hendrick’s toolbox and horsepower at his disposal, and with a crew including chief Chad Knaus that has been together for more than a dozen years, Johnson has become the New York Yankees of stock car racing.
Winning and greatness are not hoped for, but expected. There’s a difference.
It isn’t always easy, though. There’s a lot of pressure to become the best. There’s even more pressure to stay there.
Johnson has thus far stood the test of time and, based on the full head of steam worked up by Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet, the No. 48 has to again be the favorite to win a seventh NASCAR title that would tie Johnson with legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Sr., for most in the sport’s history.
It’s a weight he and his crew take to the track day in and day out. Win or everybody wonders what went wrong.
“That is the expectation, obviously,” Knaus said. “We go to the race track every week with the intent of winning the race and sitting on the pole and leading the most laps and doing everything we possibly can. The reality is that’s very difficult to achieve.
“But that’s the way it is. The expectation is for us to go out there and perform on a weekly basis as the best team out there. That’s my expectation and it’s the expectation of the fans and especially all you media guys. Because if we falter for two weeks we’re washed up and we’re all getting fired and everything is going crazy.”
Knaus is exaggerating. That may have been the feeling in 2005, when the team was fifth in points and not firing on all cylinders. Rick Hendrick called everybody together for cookies and milk to find some clean air. He sensed there was plenty of respect among all parties, but perhaps not complete trust.
“I think from that moment on we were able to be more comfortable in our own skin and as a part of ‘Team 48’,” Johnson said. “Nobody was going anywhere; we’re in this thing together.”
In 2006, Johnson started a string of five straight Sprint Cup championships. He added the sixth a year ago.
Considering Hendrick is producing more power and more speed than anybody — Penske Ford driver Brad Keselowski admitted Sunday that “it’s pretty obvious that the Hendrick engines are way ahead of everyone else … probably a full season ahead of everyone.” — and realizing that Johnson/Knaus know what to do with it, who’s going to stand in the way of title No. 7?
Maybe Junior Earnhardt or Jeff Gordon, stablemates on the Hendrick team and both very solid, can spoil Johnson’s fun. Kevin Harvick, a Chevy guy under the Stewart-Haas umbrella, has been fast week in and week out.
Johnson is kicking into gear at the right time.
He has a renewed relationship with Victory Lane.
The expectations of greatness … he’d rather have it no other way.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.