Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, sits in his car on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Samsung Mobile 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
El Cajon native Jimmie Johnson hasn't been to Victory Lane in 10 races, his longest drought in two years.
NASCAR's four-time defending champion has finished outside the top-10 in five of the last seven races and dropped to seventh in the Sprint Cup Series standings.
And now he's at Infineon Raceway, one of just five tracks where he's never won a Cup race. It's not that being in wine country poses a problem. Johnson's just not that good at road course racing.
"Everybody knows how much I have focused on it and how badly I want to win on a road course, especially here," said Johnson. "It's time."
Johnson has progressively gotten better at Infineon, where he's cracked the top-five just twice and has averaged a 17th place finish in eight career starts. He was a career-best fourth last year, but didn't carry that improvement into Watkins Glen, the only other road course in the series, where he finished 12th last August.
But after qualifying second for Sunday's race -- he briefly held the pole until he was bumped by defending winner Kasey Kahne -- Johnson believes he's got a chance at winning on a road course.
"I feel really good about it," said Johnson, who has run two Grand-Am events this year for more practice. "We've been testing and doing everything I can to be a better road course driver and to get our cars better. So we'll see what happens."
His lack of success in Sonoma became a topic of conversation this weekend, even as Johnson keeps ducking the assertion he's in some sort of slump. He's scoffed at that notion for weeks -- even though he had three finishes of 31st or worse last month.
But he's clearly aware of the perception. He joked that "everybody keeps saying I'm in a slump" when presented with his trophy for being the first quarter winner in Driver Of The Year voting. Johnson was honored for winning three of the first five races this season, a span dating to Bristol in March.
"I get accused of being a little intense at times, so I'm trying to make sure to laugh a little bit," he said, referring to his slump reference. "There is no doubt that the month of May was tough on us. I made mistakes. We had some unfortunate luck. We just had some bad races and it made for a long month. But I don't think we're in a slump. We're not where we want to be, but I wouldn't call it a slump."
Johnson could go a long way to silencing the slump talk with a win on the twisting 11-turn, 1.99-mile course through picturesque Sonoma, a track that requires a far different skill set from the usual all-left-turn racing on NASCAR's ovals.
"It is fair to say that when you've won on a road course, people look at you differently," Jeff Burton says. "Anytime a driver can accomplish goals and put himself in the realm of conversation about who has a chance to win at any kind of racetrack, that is what he wants to do."
The series boasts several drivers who have mastered the technique of road course racing, and the annual stops at Infineon and Watkins Glen offer an unusual opportunity. There are several drivers who could walk away with the win Australian Marcos Ambrose, Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya and Tony Stewart.
"It's definitely a place I feel like we've got the potential to win, even before we make a single lap," said Stewart, a two-time Sonoma winner.
That's a position Johnson would love to be in, but he understands that confidence comes with an improved comfort level. His plan of attack Sunday is to remain patient and stay calm, no easy feat considering all the blocking that goes on from the drop of the green flag.
"I know I can do this," he said. "I get in other road course cars, and I'm plenty fast and competitive. I've run good at times in the Cup car on road courses, so I know I have it in me. I just need to figure out how to do it over the course of 90 laps."