No one is suggesting Jimmie Johnson's time at or near the peak of NASCAR has ended. He remains, at age 40, a contender for victory in every Sprint Cup race he enters.
It's not a question of whether Johnson can win a Chase, NASCAR's oft-changing format for determining championships in its premier series, in the future. He can. He is at a point in his career where championships become harder to come by, which is reflected in the fact Johnson, after winning a record five straight (2006-10), has added only one more (2013) in the past five years.
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On November 8, following Johnson's fifth and final win of the 2015 season, Chad Knaus, the only NASCAR crew chief he has ever had, said, "I think, coming into 2016, it's going to be right where we need to be, especially with those new rules. I can't wait."
NASCAR has adopted a set of rules with which it experimented last year. They reduce downforce at most tracks, which has pleased most drivers, who believe such rules will put more opportunities of winning races in their hands. It is, however, the offseason, which is always a time of great optimism, when drivers and mechanics always predict changes will benefit them, and a lot of them probably believe it.
Johnson and Knaus, they of the six championship trophies, have more standing than most. The reason seven championships represent an exalted goal is that only two men, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, have ever won seven, and no one has ever won eight.
"It would be huge," Johnson said after the Texas Motor Speedway victory. "Hard to even put into words. I came into this sport hoping to win a race. If I'm able to tie Senior [Earnhardt, as opposed to Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports teammate], it's something I would be just extremely proud of."
The reason Johnson didn't mention Petty was that he trails Earnhardt by one in both titles and victories. He's not going to catch Petty in wins. The King had 200. But Johnson's next victory will tie Earnhardt's total of 76.
Just as Petty and Earnhardt were masters of the old points system, which valued each race equally, Johnson was a child of the Chase, which now has elimination rounds and a winnowing-out process that banished Johnson in the second of four rounds last season.
By Johnson's rather exalted standards, the past two seasons have been disappointing. The past two Chase finishes, 11th in 2014 and 10th in '15, were his worst ever. The last time he led fewer laps (558) was 2005.
On the other hand, he performed slightly better last year by most crucial measures—wins, top-five and top-10 finishes and average finish—than in 2014.
Johnson was making the best of what he had, which is what other drivers do, but other drivers haven't won six championships. Other drivers haven't won more than three, and the only one with three still active, Tony Stewart, is retiring at the end of the current season.
In that Texas press conference, someone asked Knaus if five victories could add up to a bad year?
"It has been," he said. "Washed up."
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He was mostly kidding. Success is defined by championships at Rick Hendrick's fleet in general and its flagship in particular. With Jeff Gordon's retirement, and third-place showing in his final Chase, the Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut looks a little soft on the flanks as a new campaign approaches.
The team figures to have two solid contenders, Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.—a resurgence from slumping Kasey Kahne and at least a splash of success from rookie and Gordon successor Chase Elliott.
Knaus, a man with high standards and the success to prove it, has made no secret of his displeasure with the 2015 season.
"Look, we did it to ourselves," he said. "Let's be honest...I don't want to say we slacked, but we stunk up the summer 100 percent. It was horrible, pathetic.
"Man, this is a tough sport. Thirty-nine events [counting all-star races and a Daytona 500 qualifying race]...we race with the best 43 teams in racing. It's tough. It only takes one or two little things to make you feel like you're out of it."
The most recent victory was vintage Johnson. He tracked down and passed the dominant driver for most of that day, Brad Keselowski. In hindsight, though, it was a bit of a fluke.
"The reality of it is we're not as strong as we need to be," Johnson said. "We've been searching for a couple years. I feel like we're making progress. I feel like our 'mile-and-a-half' [tracks] stuff is improving. The cars are a lot more comfortable to drive in traffic. I can go out there...lay it on the line, not worry about spinning out.
"We're getting there. Unfortunately, we still have a ways to go. The [Texas] win was important. I think we were a top-five, 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."
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More typical of Johnson's year was his third-place finish at Pocono on June 7, 2015.
"Our race ability has been a shining spot for us this year," he said that day. "We really didn't have a pace for '78' [winner Martin Truex Jr.] or the '4' [runner-up Kevin Harvick]. We've got to get to work there.
"I think it says that we're going a good job. Our car drives good in traffic, which is something I didn't have [in 2014], so I'm very happy to have that. I've had to pass a lot of cars, from poor qualifying efforts or flat tires and the like."
Johnson isn't too old, but he's starting to find that range. For the first time, his pursuit of championships takes on more urgency.
After the Texas victory, Johnson closed his media conference by making reference to a comment from Kyle Busch, who would go on to win the championship, referring to Johnson as Superman.
Earlier, Knaus had said, "We made some changes and let Jimmie light the fuse, put on his cape and go win it."
"That's cool to hear," Johnson said. "I wish I would have found a way to win a few more times this year. It was a long, dry summer.
"Glad I found the cape. Wasn't too dusty or too far away."
Follow @montedutton on Twitter. All quotes are taken from NASCAR media, team and manufacturer sources unless otherwise noted.
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