No doubting NASCAR's Johnson now

DEAN MCNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 6:16 PM ET

TORONTO - Alright all you Jimmie Johnson fans out there, you can exhale now, the slump is over.

You would think the guy hadn’t won a race in years the way some NASCAR insiders were treating the five-time Sprint Cup champion this season.

Let’s just take a look at what Johnson has done on the track in the first seven races of the 2011 season before winning Sunday at Talladega.

Admittedly he got off to a terrible start in the Daytona 500 where he got caught up in a wreck and finished 27th. But that was — by far — the biggest blemish of the season for Johnson.

He bounced back at Phoenix with a third-place finish behind his winning Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, then slipped to 16th place at Las Vegas.

It might have been that finish at a 1.5 mile track where the No, 48 team has been traditionally strong that sparked Johnson to a third-place finish at Bristol and he followed that up with a second place at California.

With an 11th place at Martinsville and an 8th place at Texas, Johnson came into Talladega this past weekend within striking distance — fourth place and 13 notches back — of points leader Carl Edwards,

So it was hardly earth shattering news that Johnson was able to come to Talladega and walk away with a victory.

Even he was expecting to break out of his short slump.

“Yeah, we have been knocking on the door,” Johnson said. “We had Bristol and Martinsville and California and was not able to get it done, for a variety of (reasons) that just popped up.

“I’ve always said it, when you run in the Top 5, you’re going to have your opportunities and (at Talladega) we did that and we got the job done.”

After his win on Sunday he leap frogged both Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch to put himself in second spot, only five markers back of Edwards.

His performance on Sunday at Talladega was classic Johnson. He picked the best restrictor plate driver in the Hendrick garage — Dale Earnhardt Jr. — and then hung around on the fringes of the action for most of the afternoon before charging to the front on the final lap.

“We did a good job of riding and taking care of our stuff,” Johnson said. “(We) missed some wrecks and just did a good job of managing things all day.”

What he did do, was what he does better than anyone in racing and that is anticipate what is going to happen on the track and react to it faster than anyone else.

“We had our Jedi senses in order,” Johnson said. “If you look at (the race) ... we were up front at the right times; we road (at the back) at the right times; there were wrecks around us; in front of us; the leaders wrecked one time down the back with (Kyle Busch) in that mess that took place; and we just sensed something that didn’t look right.

“And between Junior and myself and the spotters we backed off and put some distance between us and them.”

As for all those who thought that but for the final few miles around Talladega it was a pretty dull affair, Johnson disagrees.

“I think it’s entertaining,” he said of the tag-team style of racing. “I don’t remember people excited about the way it was before.

“So I think we’re evolving as teams and drivers, and continuing to put on a better show, and from where I was all day long, I thought there was a lot of racing that took place. I thought it was a great race.”

Not everyone, of course, agreed that Johnson’s tactics of sandbagging most of the day was a good thing. In fact second-place finisher Clint Bowyer blasted that strategy.

“(It) bums me out that those guys lagged back all day long,” he said of Johnson and Earnhardt. “That’s what makes it tough, losing to somebody that did that. When you get it taken from you at the end by somebody who lagged back all day, it’s hard to take.”

dean.mcnulty@sunmedia.ca


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