The same question inevitably pops up whenever and wherever NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Jimmie Johnson makes a public appearance.
He hears it over and over again.
"It's the two-year dry spell," Johnson said. "That's the question I get most. Like it's been an eternity since I've won the championship."
Two years is an eternity for Johnson. After ripping off an unprecedented five straight Sprint Cup championships during 2006-10, the last two years have not been so kind. Johnson was sixth in 2011 -- his worst finish in the first nine years of the Chase for the Sprint Cup -- and third in 2012.
But after winning at Dover last week, Johnson enters the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on Sunday in second place, just eight points behind Matt Kenseth. Now, there's a growing feeling in the garage that Johnson's about to make his move toward his sixth championship, one short of the record seven shared by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
"When you see him have trouble at Michigan or other tracks leading up to the Chase, I don't always put a whole lot into that," said Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip, an analyst for NASCAR on Fox. "I know their best tracks are coming up . . . as long as these are the 10 race tracks that we race to decide the champion, you're going to have to deal with that 48 car."
Johnson's win last week was his eighth at Dover, and he is the all-time winner or tied for the most wins at seven of the 23 active NASCAR tracks. No other driver in history is the all-time winner at so many active tracks.
Four of those tracks -- Dover, Kansas, Charlotte and Phoenix -- just happen to be part of the Chase, and Johnson also has seven career wins at Martinsville, another Chase track.
"We run those tracks in the spring and in the fall," Johnson said, "and historically in the summer, the 48 has some kind of slump, which we have tried so hard not to happen, but it did again this year.
"But it's the way the schedule is organized. The final 10 races are good tracks for the 48."
Indeed, since the playoff format was adopted in 2004, Johnson has won 23 of the 93 Chase races, a staggering 25 percent.
"It's almost like he and (crew chief) Chad Knaus always have figured the system out," said former NASCAR crew chief Larry McReynolds, now an analyst for NASCAR on Fox. "And we've had a lot of systems to figure out. They've been able to figure it out when we had a Chase with 10 drivers . . . and a chase when we had 12 drivers.
"They've done it with the old car, the Gen 5 car . . . now it's the Gen 6. It's like it doesn't matter what you throw Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus' way, they figure it out. It makes it understandable, why in his fairly short career, he's won 65 races, and five, working on six, championships."
Johnson's five championships already have assured him a spot in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, but at 38 years old, he's treading on the hallowed ground of Petty and Earnhardt as the best driver in the history of the sport.
"Johnson may be the most underrated driver . . . ever," said Petty's son, former Sprint Cup driver Kyle Petty. "He's arguably the greatest driver ever . . . When you go back and look at those early years, it was all about the driver. When you talk Richard Petty, you just talk Richard Petty. When you talk Dale Earnhardt Sr., you just talk Dale Earnhardt Sr. Nobody mentions Jimmy without mentioning Chad or (car owner) Rick Hendrick.
"He's preached the team concept so much that now he can't escape that. He drives the wheels off that thing. That's why he wins the races. I can't believe Jimmie Johnson's five championships in a row was not a bigger deal in the sports world than what it was."
McReynolds, who was Earnhardt's crew chief in 1997-98, said it was difficult to compare Johnson to Petty or Earnhardt because the level of competition is at an all-time high today.
"Not to dilute what Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt or David Pearson or Darrell Waltrip did, but they knew on race day they had to outrun, four, five, six teams," McReynolds said.
"You look today, we've had 13 different winners this year with seven races to go, and look at the guys we know who can win and have not won, the top two in points from last year, Brad Keselowski and Clint Bowyer. The competition is at an all-time high."
Petty and Earnhardt's championships, as well as Jeff Gordon's four titles, came before the advent of the Chase, which resets the standings with 10 races to go as opposed to counting all 36 races the same.
Doesn't matter, said Hall of Fame driver Dale Jarrett.
"So many people think he wouldn't have been as successful if it wouldn't have been for this Chase scenario," said Jarrett, an analyst for ESPN. "I would disagree . . . To be able to win at all those tracks and win in a big way, Jimmie doesn't get enough credit for the true superstar he really is.
"Because he's at Hendrick, everybody says, 'That's an automatic win . . . But there's a lot of people who have all that, and they're not winning all the time."
Johnson is just honored to be part of the conversation with the all-time greats.
"I could never have dreamed this big . . ." Johnson said. "The championships, the wins, the most wins at tracks . . . I'm proud of it. I've worked so hard to get here, the team has too, and to execute this for that many years, that many times at those tracks, it's not easy to do."
"But truthfully, my goal each year is when we get to Homestead (for the final race) is to have a shot. To think I'm going to win year after year after year isn't realistic . . . I've been racing 32 years of my life, and I've won seven or eight championships and five in the last eight years. I'm not feeling too bad.
"Of course, I want to keep winning. But what we did . . . I don't know if it will ever be done again."
JOHNSON'S TRACK TO A CHAMPIONSHIP
Jimmie Johnson has won the most or is tied for the most wins at seven of the 23 active Sprint Cup race tracks, more than any driver in history. Four of those tracks are in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Track ... Victories ...
Auto Club ... 5 ...
Charlotte ... 6 (tied) ...
Dover ... 8 ...
Indianapolis ... 4 (tied) ...
Kansas ... 2 (tied) ...
Las Vegas ... 4 ...
Phoenix ... 4 ...
Chase for the Sprint Cup tracks
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