Jimmie Johnson spent his final week off from the Sprint Cup season on a family vacation with wife Chandra and 2-month-old daughter Genevieve Marie at a secluded island resort in South Carolina. It was a quiet, relaxing time to enjoy life and to recharge his batteries to prepare for the Chase.
Johnson probably didn't spend one minute thinking about how to make the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet better or what he had to do to win a fifth straight Cup championship. Insiders say he's confident in the equipment and in his team.
His out-of-sight, out-of-mind week away from racing reflects his calmness and experience. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are the masters of the Chase format, 10 races to the championship that start after Sunday's race at Atlanta and the regular season finale at Richmond.
With a few exceptions, nearly the entire Cup garage took last week off to have some fun from the long and demanding season. In that regard, Johnson's R and R wasn't unusual. But Johnson has slid from second to ninth in the points over the past seven races and that has some wondering what's happened to him. If there had been any feeling of trouble in the No. 48 camp, you know Johnson and Knaus would have put in some time last week trying to fix it.
Their pride would have demanded it.
Those last seven races look like a slump. Johnson won back-to-back races at Infineon in Sonoma, Calif., and New Hampshire. They raised his total wins for 2010 to five in 17 races. But Johnson has been 22nd or worse in five of the past seven. He was 10th at Pocono and 12th at Michigan in the other two.
Johnson's explanation: "I hate that we've run into some bad racing luck for the last few weeks. We've had good race cars, but just haven't been able to get the finishes."
Here's a good example: Johnson started on the pole in the most recent race, at Bristol, and led 175 laps. Racing with Juan Pablo Montoya on a restart for second, Johnson tried to consolidate second by going up the track on the back straight. He clipped Montoya, hit the wall and finished 35th, 85 laps down.
Johnson thought he had Montoya cleared. He was racing for those 10 bonus points for wins that go into the Chase and didn't want leader Kyle Busch to get away. Johnson didn't think it was intentional. Inside, he probably knows he was too aggressive with Montoya, who never gives an inch. It's not a mistake Johnson would make in the Chase.
Other incidences of what Johnson termed bad luck: He was caught up in a big accident at Daytona II and finished 31st, had a flat tire early and later was involved in a multi-car accident at Watkins Glen en route to 28th and spun when he lost downforce racing Martin Truex Jr. at Chicagoland and finished 25th.
Johnson and Knaus undoubtedly have made some mistakes on preparing the car in recent weeks that have contributed to spins at Chicagoland and Indianapolis. Johnson also admits he hasn't been fast enough on the intermediate tracks despite wins at two-mile Auto Club Speedway in California and 1.5-mile Las Vegas early in the year. Atlanta, a 1.5-mile track, will be an important race in preparing for the Chase for Johnson. There are five intermediate tracks in the Chase.
"We've been off on the mile-and-a-half and two-mile tracks," Johnson said. "Even at the start of the year, I wasn't the dominate car. If you look at California, the No. 29 (Kevin Harvick) was coming and got into the fence and we won. Vegas, we had a solid performance, but the No. 24 (Jeff Gordon) dominated all day and we got him at the end with some tire strategy.
"We knew then that we needed to go to work and find some speed and we've been working all summer on the big tracks to find it. We're not where we want to be. Before we get to a mile-and-a-half in the Chase that counts, we have a little more time. We made some decisions recently on what type of car we want to run, what packages, and we're committed to our direction. Hopefully, we have the speed that we need within that."
Johnson doesn't have any concerns about the four tracks that are less than a mile in the Chase.
"Our program on mile-and-below tracks...has been really strong," he said.
Even if he leaves Atlanta unsatisfied with the car's performance, Johnson believes he'll be ready for the Chase. The No. 48 team has won four years in a row not only because it's had fast cars from the well-developed Hendricks stable, but it has handled the pressure better than everyone else.
"Last year, we left Richmond and in my mind, I thought we were in big, big trouble for the Chase," Johnson said. "I didn't think we had the speed. We ran terrible at Richmond and I was frustrated and angry and just mad. What I keep telling myself is that those 10 races in the Chase, it is in its own world. The people act and react differently under pressure, including us, and for the last four years we have done a great job in that environment.
"I think we need to be faster on those mile-and-a-half tracks, but I also know that we respond well to pressure. We have some time to find what we need. I think we've done that over the past few years. We've entered the Chase hot, we've entered it cold and either way we've found a way to come out on top. It gives us confidence knowing we have it in us."
Johnson might be accused of playing mind games with talk like that, but he's got the championships to back those words up. Five championships in a row is within his reach.