Jimmie Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, used to be a force to be reckoned with when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series stayed close to home to race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The series invades the home track on Saturday night for the Bank of America 500, the fifth race in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Johnson heads into the Charlotte race weekend second in points, 14 points behind leader Brad Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge. But a win at Charlotte for the five-time champion isn't as close to a given as it used to be.
Last year, we had probably the best car and one of the top two or three cars...
But that was then and this is now. He did post a Charlotte win in the fall of 2009, but that's pretty much been the only bright spot in the No. 48 team’s recent visits to CMS. Johnson finished a paltry 25th when the circuit last visited the track in May, and in three visits since that 2009 win, his average finish isn't much better at 22.6. The poor average, at least by Johnson standards, is due in large part to two DNFs.
Other drivers have caught up to Johnson when it comes to racing at Charlotte, as he's one of eight different winners in the eight most recent Sprint Cup Series races there.
"When they repaved it, it changed things and kind of equalized the field," Johnson said. "Last year, we had probably the best car and one of the top two or three cars, and I just crashed late after trying to overcome some pit strategy issues we had."
Jeff Gordon has driven his No. 24 Chevrolet into Charlotte Motor Speedway's victory lane five times over the years, and Kasey Kahne, driver of the No. 5 at HMS, has won four times at Charlotte. One of Kahne's four wins at the track came in the No. 5 he'll be driving come Saturday night, and that victory came not so long ago. He was hoisting the Coca-Cola 600 winner's trophy the last time the Sprint Cup Series raced at Charlotte in May.
"It's great to go back to Charlotte as the defending winner," Kahne said. "The win in May was a total team effort and was really big for us to get that victory. I think we've gotten stronger since then. I hope we can be back out front and sweep the season here."
But don't count Johnson out. While his recent stats at Charlotte in points-paying races have left a lot to be desired by the five-time champion, he hasn't forgotten to win at the track he once dominated. Johnson also has a 2012 win at Charlotte; it just wasn't a points-paying win. Johnson did visit victory lane after winning the Sprint All-Star Race at the track earlier this year.
"We won the All-Star Race and ran very well in the 600, so I feel like we'll be there and be a threat, and I need to be at this time of the year," Johnson said. "We need to be on top of things."
Another staggering stat: Hendrick Motorsports, over the years, has tallied 17 Cup level wins at CMS. The closest competition is Roush Fenway Racing and Petty Enterprises, each with only eight.
Sure, there'll be 43 drivers on hand to take the green flag on Saturday night, several of those with a legitimate shot at ending the evening in victory lane. But they'll probably have to get through Hendrick Motorsports first.