For the first time since 2005, Jimmie Johnson will not be hoisting the Sprint Cup championship trophy at Homestead-Miami Speedway following the season finale.
After finishing 14th at Phoenix on Sunday, Johnson is 68 points behind leader Carl Edwards and is mathematically eliminated from title contention.
Now that Jimmie Johnson's unprecedented title streak is finally over, the question is how the No. 48 team will respond in 2012.
Will they fade into the pack and lose their perennial status as the team to beat? Or will they be back with renewed hunger for the title?
To find the answer to those questions, let's turn to what Johnson himself has to say regarding the end of his era of dominance. After last week's race at Phoenix, Johnson addressed how he is dealing with the fact that he won't be NASCAR's champion for the first time in six years.
"There's definitely disappointment," Johnson said. "I think that will be the emotion I deal with first. And then over the offseason, I'm sure it will kick in some and reflect. I'll reflect then, but still—in order for us to be where we want to be next year, we've got to work very, very hard during this offseason to understand what's up, and that's not going to make it all that relaxed. So, I'm up for the challenge. This team is. My guys work so hard, and we'll learn and grow from this."
In a way, Johnson is looking forward to the opportunity to take a different approach to preparation for the upcoming season over the offseason.
"To a certain degree, being on top for as long as we have been takes a lot of effort to maintain that. It just takes a lot out of you," said Johnson. "So this winter will be a nice winter to unplug and relax and really look internally and dissect the different areas of the race team and what we do and come back stronger. I've always learned more from tougher moments, and by no means is this a tough moment. Yes, the streak is gone, but we've still got a shot at a top-five in points, and that would be a big year still."
It's a good sign that Johnson still has goals for 2011, and he has two major streaks to try to keep alive.
First, his streak of Top 5 finishes. Johnson has finished fifth or better every year he's been in NASCAR's top series. He's currently sitting fifth in the points, three behind Brad Keselowski in fourth and just two ahead of Matt Kenseth in sixth.
Second, Johnson has scored at least three victories every year he's been in Cup competition. He only has two so far this season, so with a win at Homestead he could extend that streak. Winning at Homestead—a track where he's never taken the checkered flag—would be a significant achievement in and of itself.
Johnson is not throwing in the towel with one race to go in 2011, and that bodes well for his chances next season—a bad sign for the competition.
My money, for one, is on Johnson coming back strong in 2012.
I believe this season has been an aberration for the No. 48 team. For several years, Johnson had been known as the sports premier closer—often seeming to come out of nowhere to win races.
For whatever reason, that hasn't been the case in 2011.
Johnson was passed by Kevin Harvick in the final turn of the final lap at Fontana this spring. In the Chase, he lost to Kurt Busch on a late restart at Dover, a track where Johnson has historically dominated.
At Martinsville a few weeks ago, he lost the lead to Tony Stewart on a green-white-checkered finish.
In all, Johnson has finished second five times in 2011 with just two victories.
I don't think Johnson has lost his killer instinct. Circumstances have conspired against him—at both Dover and Martinsville, he was competing on older tires than the drivers who beat him.
With regard to Johnson not winning the Chase (or even being in contention at Homestead), bad luck was due to strike the No. 48 team sooner or later. A crash at Charlotte and a poor finish at Talladega were surprising, but hardly signs of the perpetual demise of a championship-caliber team.
To say the least, Johnson will not be happy watching another driver raise the championship trophy in celebration this weekend in Miami.
That picture ought to provide extra motivation for Johnson heading into next season. He likes winning and has gotten used to it. The No. 48 team knows it can be the best, and Jimmie Johnson will be back with a vengeance in 2012.
Luke Krmpotich is a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/nascarfanumber1
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