Tony Stewart ended Jimmie Johnson’s championship reign last year but are NASCAR fans witnessing an end of an era? For a driver who, on average, once won about one out of every six starts, Johnson has two victories in his last 50 races.
While many drivers would gladly take two victories in such a span, Johnson’s stretch raises questions. This is the driver who won so many races in the final 10 laps, either taking the lead or holding off those trying to take it from him. This is the driver whose team put him in position to win. This is the driver whose car often was so much better than anybody else.
Now, this driver and team are no longer as dominant.
Yet, before one laments Johnson’s woes, consider Johnson’s record in the last 50 races:
• Johnson has finished in the top five 44 percent of the time (Stewart finished in the top five in 26 percent of those races).
• Johnson has finished in the top 10 66 percent of the time (Stewart finished in the top 10 in 50 percent of those races).
Johnson’s feat is impressive but expectations are so high that when he doesn’t win, it gains attention.
“I look back and I think of five or six races that got away,” Johnson said before Sunday’s race at Martinsville — another one that got away after he was collected in a late-race incident.
“Making those mistakes, I didn’t make those in years past or the team didn’t make them. There are some things that boiled down to strategy and others down to restarts that have been on me.
“I heard Jeff (Gordon) say something a long time ago, when he won 13 races or something like that in a year. He said he won every race he should have and then some that he shouldn’t have. We need to win the races we should be able to win and that we have a shot to win.”
There’s no doubt that Johnson’s team has lost a bit of its edge. Yet for all his struggles, he left Martinsville 10th in the points, hindered by his 42nd-place finish in the Daytona 500 when he was wrecked on the second lap. Since then, he’s finished no worse than 12th and that came Sunday at Martinsville after he was spun while battling for the lead in the final laps.
“Nothing is eating at me,” Johnson said before Sunday’s race. “Right now I’m very optimistic about our season. I have not paid attention to a stat or a number since our last win. I feel that we’re knocking on the door and we’re running on the race track where we should, and up front, and that’s going to give us chance to win.”
BACK IN THE SADDLE John Wes Townley drove in this past weekend’s Camping World Truck Series race after his team sat him out of the Daytona race because he was arrested and charged with DUI after crashing his 2012 BWM on Feb. 7 near Athens, Ga.
RAB Racing reinstated him for Martinsville. NASCAR placed Townley on probation for the rest of the year and he will be subject to random drug and alcohol testing. Townley said his team also has placed “internal sanctions” on him that he would not discuss.
Townley, who was cited in Feb. 2010 for underage possession of alcohol in Las Vegas, says he’s abstained from drinking since the February crash.
“That night I was having a few drinks with some friends and that morning I had to get up really early to go to Charlotte to go get some seats done and I left really early in the morning,” Townley said of what happened Feb. 7. “It was really foggy. It was really rainy outside, and I ran off the road and I hit my head pretty bad. I was disoriented. I went up to somebody's door because I left my cell phone back at the house and when that all happened — that's where I was.
“But I don't want of those conditions to undermine the decision that I made, because it's on me. It was up to me. I’m the one who got in the car. It was just a perfect storm that everything happened that night. I want to send my deepest apologies to anybody.”
The crash is just part of his curious past. Townley suddenly left his ride and the sport in Sept. 2010 before the Richmond Nationwide race.
“I needed to step back and re-evaluate how I felt about continuing on with the sport,” he said. “I didn’t really know where I was at the time and I just needed that time to step back and re-think what I wanted out of life and coming back into it I really just wanted to give it another shot and certainly didn’t want to leave it the way I left it. So to answer your question, I really want to get back into it to show some people that I can really perform out there and give it another shot.”
Townley finished 23rd at Martinsville.
Ryan Newman and his Grandfather clock. (ASP, Inc.)
SPECIAL WIN Ryan Newman’s victory Sunday at Martinsville came on the 19th anniversary of former champion Alan Kulwicki’s death in a plane crash on the way to Bristol.
Newman’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, joined Kulwicki’s team in 1986 and was his car chief in 1992 when Kulwicki won the title. Gibson said he thought of the anniversary the night before Sunday’s race.
“A lot of the reason I’m where I’m at is because of Alan,” Gibson said. “You know, the fight to never give up, and always believe in yourself comes from him, too.
“It’s just pretty cool to be with Ryan with the engineering background, and he’s just like Alan. He's just like him. He’s wicked smart and when you ever try to catch him on something, he’s got a little bit better answer for you. So I don’t try that anymore.”
Said Newman of Kulwicki: “He was (an) inspiration for me. He was part of the reason why I chose to be an engineer and follow through with my racing career at the same time.”
PIT STOPS All three national NASCAR series are off this weekend. The Nationwide and Cup series compete April 13 and 14 at Texas Motor Speedway and the Camping World Truck Series races April 15 at Rockingham Speedway. ... After six Cup races, 15 drivers have collected at least $1 million in race winnings (typically divided between the team and the driver). Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth has collected the most at $2,344,947.