JOLIET, Ill. — If you're looking for a driver with a strong head of steam entering the Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship, you're probably not thinking of Jimmie Johnson.
The only driver to make every Chase since NASCAR's playoff format started in 2004, Johnson seeks his seventh Cup title. But no one, it seems, is talking about the prospect of a record-tying championship.
That's because, statistically, the driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is having his least productive season at NASCAR's highest level.
With 10 top 10s through 26 races, Johnson will have to finish in the top 10 in each of the 10 Chase races just to match his career low of 20 (2003 and 2014). With 266 laps led Johnson is on pace for a career low; in 2005 he led 547 laps.
Johnson has two victories this season, none since March at Fontana. Only once, in 2011, has Johnson won as few as two races in a season. His average finish of 15.3 is tied for a career worst established in 2014.
So why was Johnson smiling when he fielded questions during a media event Thursday?
Perhaps because the Chase is about to start. Perhaps because the 10 Chase tracks fall right into the No. 48 team's wheelhouse. And perhaps because Johnson has won six of NASCAR's past 10 high-speed playoffs
Nevertheless, Johnson doesn't enjoy his position as a handicapper's also-ran.
"No," he said emphatically. "Hell, I'd rather be dominating and be on top and be the top pick. I don't like where we're at. We're working hard. There's a lot of optimism and a lot of great things happening. We just need to deliver consistently and execute at the track."
That has been a problem not only this season but the past two seasons, when Johnson has been eliminated from the Chase before the finale at Homestead.
Though listeners to the team radio have often noted a palpable tension between the driver and crew chief Chad Knaus, Johnson said that relationship isn't the problem in and of itself.
"It's a frustrating journey when you're off," Johnson said. "When you're on, it's easy, practically. If we were being outrun by our teammates week in and week out, we weren't the lead car at Hendrick, we'd probably have to look real hard at the relationship between me and Chad.
"But with that not being the case, we're just frustrated."
Still, it would be a mistake to count out the No. 48 team prematurely.
"You can't ever discount him and Chad Knaus and what they've been able to accomplish in this sport over the last decade," defending Cup champion Kyle Busch said. "So that's why you always put them in there."
Tweet, tweet: The 16 drivers in the Chase will display their personal Twitter handles on their windshields for the first round, or three races, rather than their names.