Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’ve heard it all before. You’re sick of Jimmie Johnson winning all the time in Sprint Cup. In this age of spec racing, an excess of parity in the NFL and an overemphasis on playing fair in every walk of life, such domination is uncharacteristic of our culture.
Johnson now has five consecutive titles where no other driver has more than three in a row. But can he win a sixth? We saw some very human flaws in Team 48 towards the end of last year’s Chase—or, perhaps, we saw a team challenge itself to come back from a deficit for once instead of beating everybody outright the easier way.
Either way, folks are thinking, hoping and praying that this year might be their year, or at least not Jimmie Johnson’s. But Johnson is the undisputed top dog and the favorite, and will remain so until he proves to be otherwise. In the meantime, it’s business as usual in the Hendrick Motorsports shop.
So what will it take for the best driver of the Chase era to score his sixth Sprint Cup title? Read on...
Whatever the No. 48 team has done to prepare for title runs over the past half decade or so needs to stay the same. I’m sure there’s no reason why they’d change anything up in the routine, but some teams do in some sports, and it comes back to haunt them if the opposition hadn’t quite figured it out yet. That’s the case in NASCAR. They need to approach every preseason test and meeting the same way as ever.
Every driver likes to have a good Speedweeks. Johnson will run the Rolex 24 alongside Alex Gurney, Jon Fogarty and Jimmy Vasser for Bob Stallings Racing, as he has in many recent years, and will compete in the Bud Shootout as usual. Solid performances in these tune-up races go a long way towards building confidence for the season.
But what Speedweeks is complete without a victory in its crown jewel, the Daytona 500? Jimmie’s won the race once before, but it’s actually his only points-paying Daytona victory (to say nothing of the Gatorade Duels he's won), and he did it without Chad Knaus on top of the pit box. I’m sure the crew chief thinks it’s high time that changes.
Every driver and every team wants to start every season with strong runs and victories. But perhaps this is the problem for them, and the key to Johnson’s success. Most of the regular season winners falter in the Chase and fall behind Johnson, who starts slow and uses the early season as a test session for when it counts. But last year, Johnson headed into the Chase with one of the highest win totals in the sport, and for once nearly lost the title. They can’t use too much energy in the early part of the season once again.
Hendrick Motorsports wasn’t quite itself in 2010. Two drivers missed the Chase—a streaky Mark Martin and an off-the-map entirely Dale Earnhardt Jr.—and the most noteworthy thing that Jeff Gordon did was attempt to beat the living daylights out of Jeff Burton. Now the trio have switched around their respective crews and race shops in an effort to get better. A well-rounded HMS will force other teams to stop focusing on Johnson and worry about his teammates once again.
Team 48 has claimed victories on most Sprint Cup tracks, with only a few notable exceptions. Johnson has goose eggs in the win column at Chicago, Michigan and Watkins Glen, all midseason tracks. Meanwhile, he’s struggled at Bristol for most of his career as well, finally taking his first win there last year. No, it won’t help them in the Chase, but when they’ve done just about everything else there is to do, you need to come up with new challenges.
Choosing the right Chase rivals to put the pressure on makes a huge difference. Recall how towards the end of last year, Johnson got into Denny Hamlin’s head before the end of the season and basically left Kevin Harvick alone, even as he was the sport’s top driver statistically and had a reasonably strong chance to win the title. It paid off—Hamlin, the points leader, blew it, while Harvick was close but never quite close enough. Whoever else is strong heading into the Chase—pundits are expecting Carl Edwards to surge after his two season-ending wins—Johnson and Knaus need to focus on that team. Those guys will certainly be focusing on the 48.
You know, what Johnson did in the final two weeks of the season was impressive. He overcame a deficit to Denny Hamlin after Texas by keeping calm and shaking the younger driver’s nerves, leading to uncharacteristic mistakes by the No. 11 team. The result was the first points lead to change hands in the final race of the season since 1992. But now Hamlin has been to the top. Carl Edwards has fought for it. So have most of Johnson’s top title rivals now. He can no longer afford to get behind and expect to rattle his opponents’ psyche—if he gets to the points lead in the Chase, he needs to maintain it for good like he used to.
Homestead is, theoretically speaking, Johnson’s Achilles heel—it’s where he has by far his worst average finish of any track. It may have been where he clinched the 2010 title, but that’s partially because points leader Denny Hamlin flaked out while Johnson put together a solid run. If it’s that close again come the 2011 finale, expect Johnson to need his maiden Homestead victory to close the deal.
Of the name of the campaign for his sixth consecutive title, “Six Pack,” Johnson said it was a beer joke. Come on, man, change it. First of all, the guy who would have won the 2010 title in a non-Chase world, Kevin Harvick, now has a beer sponsor (Budweiser) and you don’t. Second, “Six Pack” was also the name of Kenny Rogers' acting debut; it saw the country singer play a down-on-his-luck racecar driver who adopts half a dozen orphans on the way to finding the woman of his dreams and resurrecting his racing career. That horribly cheesy plot just CAN’T be a good omen, can it?
Hope you enjoyed this piece. Have fun watching Jimmie Johnson go for title number six in 2011...or rooting against him, if that's your thing.