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Win feels good but Johnson, Knaus admit work remains for No. 48 team

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coke Zero 400 - Practice

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - JULY 03: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s Patriotic Chevrolet, speaks with crew chief Chad Knaus during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway on July 3, 2015 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

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FORT WORTH, Texas - After the celebration ceased, Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus offered blunt assessments of their team’s struggles in getting to victory lane the past five months

“Let’s be honest, we did it to ourselves,’’ Knaus said after Johnson snapped his 20-race winless drought with a late-race pass for the lead Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. “I don’t want to say we slacked, but we stunk up the summer 100 percent. It was horrible, pathetic.’’

No one saw the struggles coming for this team. Johnson won four of the first 13 races and appeared poised for a strong run at a record-tying seventh Sprint Cup championship, but his dominance waned as the season progressed. After finishing second to teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Daytona, Johnson did not lead a lap for the next 12 races. This from a driver who often has been among the sport’s leaders in laps led.

He wasn’t alone. All of Hendrick Motorsports struggled this summer. The organization went 15 races without a win until Jeff Gordon’s victory at Martinsville Speedway. Johnson’s win gives the organization two in a row, heading into this weekend’s race at Phoenix International Raceway.

Sunday’s win, though, doesn’t cure everything for Johnson and his team.

“The reality of it is we’re not as strong as we need to be,’’ Johnson said after his 75th career victory put him one shy of tying Dale Earnhardt Sr. on the all-time victory list. “We’ve been searching for a couple years. I feel like we’re making progress. I feel like our mile‑and‑a‑half stuff is improving. The cars are a lot more comfortable to drive in traffic. I can go out there and race like I did tonight, lay it on the line, not worry about spinning out.

“Unfortunately we still have a ways to go. The win is important. I think we were a top‑five car, a top‑three car all day. Then circumstances at the end got us the win. We want to be back to being the dominant car and we still have some work to get there.’’

Knaus said that he’s felt better about how the team has run lately even if the results haven’t shown it. An axle seal issue forced Johnson to the garage at Dover International Speedway, preventing him from advancing to the second round of the Chase. An engine issue left Johnson with a 39th-place finish at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“I feel like we’ve run the last six weeks, Martinsville being the track we ran the worst at, which is really odd,’’ Knaus said, noting Johnson’s 12th-place run there. “We haven’t been able to post the finishes.

“To be able to come out of here with the win, to be able to race for it the way we did, I think it speaks volumes about where the 48 is, the no‑give‑up attitude that we’ve got.’’

It has Knaus looking forward to next year - just not to the summer when the No. 48 team often hits a lull.

“That damn summer,’’ Knaus said smiling. “I’m just going to stay home next year.’’

No, he won’t, but he’s determined to prevent another such midseason swoon.

“We’re going to figure it out,’’ Knaus said.

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