Jimmie Johnson is ready for Chase, but is Hendrick Motorsports?
LOUDON, N.H. -- Moments after taking the points lead Sunday, Carl Edwards walked down pit road to Jimmie Johnson and shook his hand.
Unable to keep pace on the track, Edwards was left to admire Johnson's herculean charge in the final laps, as the five-time champion tried to overcome a day of miscues that left him frustrated with his team.
As Edwards reached out his hand, he told Johnson: "I don't think Golden Tate himself could have passed anybody out there. Good job.''
Johnson laughed at the reference to the Seattle Seahawks player who suffered a Twitter beat down from NASCAR fans last week when he questioned Johnson's nomination for the best male athlete award at the ESPYs.
When Edwards walked away, Johnson's frustration returned, despite his fifth-place finish.
"When it's key times for stops, we have mistakes,'' Johnson said of his team. "I've been real patient all year trying to build. I'm running out of patience. I care for these guys deeply for going over the wall and I know they're very talented guys, but we're getting into my livelihood in a little bit when we get into this Chase and we've got to be right. Thankfully we've got an off-week and we can work on some stuff and try to figure out a solution.''
What has to be done?
"If there is anything major that has to change, we need to do it before the Chase starts,'' said Johnson, who also overcame a spin while he raced Juan Pablo Montoya. "I have no clue what that means, and, obviously, I'm speaking with some frustration for a bad day. We've been working and we've been patient as a group trying to mature some guys and get some stuff ready, but we can't have these mistakes any more. We're getting way too close to the Chase. We need to be right.''
Johnson's comments are likely to be part of many discussions at Hendrick Motorsports this week with the Sprint Cup series heading into its final off-weekend of the season. Also on the agenda will be how to keep Dale Earnhardt Jr. from falling out of the top 10 in points, and how to avoid the pitfalls Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin suffered Sunday.
Johnson's frustration is understandable. Although he won last year's title, this team has not shown the dominance it once had. Pit crew woes could have cost him last year's title. Crew chief Chad Knaus responded by replacing the unit with Gordon's crew during the Texas race last fall. Gordon's crew remained with Johnson after that for the final two Chase races.
To avoid that problem this year, Knaus sought to build the team's depth. Instead of having a set group all year, he wanted to make spots on the pit crew a competition, thus the lineup could change from race to race. This method has worked well at times and not so well other times.
"We've got a long ways to go yet,'' Knaus said, aware that the Chase is two months away, "but, obviously, we've got decent race cars. They run fast. We've had some trouble on pit road that we're trying to overcome and once we get beyond that we'll be OK.''
That can't come soon enough for Johnson.
He's also frustrated with how the team has qualified. Johnson started 28th at New Hampshire and has started in the top 10 in only two of the last seven races. Johnson's average starting spot this season is 14.3 -- well worse than any of his championship seasons.
The team's qualifying decline has been evident since 2009. Only six of his 25 career poles have come since then. His average starting spot in 2009 was 8.2. It rose to 9.3 last year and now has climbed even higher.
He understands that a lot of drivers and teams would like to have such qualifying issues, but Johnson worries that the further back he starts, the harder his quest for a sixth consecutive title will be.
"If you look at the result, there's nothing to complain about,'' said Johnson, who is second in the point standings. "We made up a lot of points [Sunday] ... but if you look at the journey and you plotted a chart about where we started and where we finished, that thing is all over the place and we can't have that.
"I'm in harm's way, week in and week out, trying to get to the front. When it comes to the front, you need to dodge all of those wild situations as often as possible and qualifying poorly and having things that affect your track position all day long are the wrong [things] to win a championship.''
Earnhardt, whose team works in the same building at Hendrick Motorsports, also has struggled. Earnhardt's 15th-place finish at New Hampshire was his best in the last five races. That couldn't keep him from falling another spot in the points to ninth, which leaves him only seven points from falling out of the top 10. Without a victory this season, Earnhardt's chances for one of the two wild-card spots are slim should he fall out of the top 10.
That didn't help his mood Sunday.
"We struggled all weekend,'' he said. "In practice we just didn't really have the speed we had last year. We've just got to figure out why. What's the difference in this tire and try to figure it out. I mean, every damn week they change the tire."
Despite the recent woes, Steve Letarte, Dale Jr.'s crew chief, says he likes Earnhardt's attitude.
"I'm not concerned about the driver,'' Letarte said. "I'm concerned that we need to have more speed and put together better races. I don't put that on the driver. I put that on the whole team, me included. We do some things really, really good, and some things we have done just kind of average.''
Letarte said he'll also take a close look at his pit crew.
"It's our job ... to put out the best potential team we can every week from the car to the pit crew to the engineers,'' he said. "So, if we feel there [are] better options or opportunities, we're definitely going to take them.''
That's also the mentality for Gordon's team and Martin's team. Gordon was fourth when he blew a tire on the final lap, and he ended up finishing 11th on a day where alternator issues handicapped him. Martin also struggled and finished 22nd -- the fourth consecutive race he's finished 19th or worse.
Despite his problems, Gordon sought to accentuate the positives with his day.
"From a performance standpoint, I think we showed everybody what we're capable of doing, and for that I'm very excited,'' he said. "I know the guys feel really bad about the issues that we had, but it was a great lesson for us to go through this and understand how to deal with it and how we reacted to it.
"We had some issues with alternators last year and we thought we had them solved. So now we've got to diagnose that issue to make sure that doesn't happen again. You want to go through all your checkmarks for preparing for the Chase for the Championship to make sure when you get into the Chase ... you don't have these kind of issues.''
Seven races remain until the Chase begins. Each team knows its issues. Now, it's a matter of solving them to make a title run.