RICHMOND, Va. -- A huge smile slowly filled Jimmie Johnson's face as he listened to his introduction at Friday morning's press conference at Richmond International Raceway. He shook his head and grinned as his record at the track -- highlighted by three wins -- was duly noted.
"Are you sure we have three wins?" Johnson joked. "We suck here. We've been terrible and hopefully we're a lot better this weekend. The last couple trips especially, we have been junk."
But, Johnson quickly pointed out, "I think it's a fantastic race track, it put on a great show, it's great for the fans and in my heart I think we need more short tracks on the schedule. I just need to get this one figured out."
He's right about that for many reasons -- the least of which may be that it would finally stop the "When are you going to win in 2014?" query that has followed the six-time and reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion the first three months of the season.
Ironically, in a season whose new championship format emphasizes wins over consistency, the champ is a little slower getting to Victory Lane in his No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet than he's used to. Or perhaps everyone else feels used to.
Of course, it's all relative.
In his 12 previous full-time seasons, Johnson has always scored at least one win by the summer.
Richmond is the ninth race on the schedule and Johnson has failed to win by race nine only three times -- two of those instances occurred in his first two seasons. It took Johnson all of 10 races into his 2002 rookie year to score his first career win (at Auto Club Speedway). It took him 12 races in 2003 to visit Victory Lane (at Charlotte Motor Speedway) -- the deepest into a season he's gone before winning. In 2012, he won the schedule's 11th race at Darlington Raceway.
In all but two of his six Cup championship seasons, though, he's hoisted a trophy by the third race.
"Honestly, I get asked about it and that is the only time it comes through my mind," Johnson said of still seeking his first win of 2014. "I don't have this big fear that I'm not going to make the Chase and I'm not going to win a race. If we were running 15th and 20th every week I would be up here nervous, and honestly I would tell you about it.
"But the fact we have been knocking on the door gives me great hope and optimism and doesn't change anything from this year versus any other year mentally."
Other than a couple of hard-luck races -- a blown tire at Fontana and damage incurred from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s wrecked car at Texas -- Johnson has an enviable record of five top-six finishes. He was runner-up at Martinsville Speedway four weeks ago and placed third in the previous race at Darlington.
Johnson says the slightly modified 2014 version of the Generation-6 car has proven to be challenging for the team to get mastered.
"Right now we are still trying to find exactly what gives us the best vehicle dynamics and what gives me the best feel," Johnson said. "A lot of time when you create the perfect car on the race track when you look at video and photos, it's not turning as strong as I want it to.
"We'll get there and I think we have been there at a handful of races this year. So we are just going down the road and trying to figure out where the speed is and balancing those two worlds."
In the meantime, Johnson would love to rekindle the success he had here from 2007-08, when he won three of the track's four Cup races. He has only four top-10s in the 10 races since his September 2008 win.
A victory Saturday night would both silence the critics and invigorate the fans, who are hoping to see Johnson win a historic seventh Cup title this year in yet another new championship format.
For Johnson, it's always been all about winning.
"Yes, there seems to be a least a conscious effort to win races more and this big discussion about winning races, but you need to win races to win a championship, period," Johnson said. "That has really been the mindset the No. 48 has always had. We have knocked on the door a few times and I think a win is out here for us very soon, hopefully this weekend."
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