NASCAR: Jimmie Johnson's Blueprint to Regain the Sprint Cup Championship

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistJanuary 29, 2013

NASCAR: Jimmie Johnson's Blueprint to Regain the Sprint Cup Championship

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    History will show Jimmie Johnson as being one of the greatest drivers and champions in NASCAR.

    But just because Johnson has failed to finish No. 1 the last two seasons (sixth in 2011 and third in 2012)—after winning a record five Sprint Cup championships in a row from 2006-2010—doesn't mean he will never win another Cup title again.

    There's no question that at the age of 37, Johnson is nowhere near being washed up. In fact, he still remains a threat to win at any track every time he climbs behind the wheel of his No. 48 Chevrolet.

    And after two seasons of coming up short in the pursuit of his sixth championship, 2013 may very well be the year Johnson makes it all the way back to the top of the heap.

    It won't be easy with competition at an all-time high, not to mention the introduction of the new Generation 6 version of the Car of Tomorrow; Gen 6 for short.

    Here's the blueprint or road map that Johnson must follow in building the foundation, walls and roof to a sixth championship in 2013.

1. Must Set the Series' Standard Early with New Gen 6 Car

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    Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus were among the earliest leaders when it came to success with the first generation of the Car of Tomorrow back in 2007, when the new car was introduced for a 16-race partial schedule prior to full-time implementation for 2008.

    Johnson and Knaus did extensive work and testing with the COT long before it even was green-lighted to be race worthy and introduced in the spring 2007 race at Bristol. It was that advance thinking and work that paid dividends as the No. 48 team went on to win the Sprint Cup championship for a second time in 2007 and again in 2008, part of a five-year run as champion from 2006-10.

    They've done the same exact thing with the new Gen 6 car, starting last year with planning and preparation and following up with an ambitious testing and refinement program.

    Of course, results will speak for themselves. But given Knaus' fanatic and methodical way of improving race cars in ways other crew chiefs can't, it won't be a surprise to see Johnson win his second career Daytona 500 in a few weeks.

    In a sense, the Gen 6 car couldn't come at a better time for Johnson: Since finishing second in the July 2009 race at Daytona, he's finished 35th, 31st, 27th, 20th, 42nd and 36th in his last six starts there, including three Daytona 500s.

2. Lead, Don't Play Catch-Up

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    Jimmie Johnson has historically been a leader, not a follower, when it comes to success on the racetrack. But somewhere along the way in the last two seasons, he's become a driver who seems to get behind too often and is forced to play catch-up.

    Last season's final two races at Phoenix and Homestead were two perfect examples.

    At Phoenix, Johnson once again displayed a bad habit that he acquired in 2011 and continued in 2012: falling behind early far too often in the course of a season. Not coincidentally, such an action would ultimately take him out of the championship battle in both seasons.

    And as Brad Keselowski continued to add ground—literally and figuratively—as the race wore on, Johnson continued to slip back even further.

    Late in the race, Johnson was trailing Kes by something like 15 positions and essentially overpowered his car to the point where a right front tire blew out from the undue pressure being exerted by its driver, sending Johnson into the wall, all but ending his day.

    As a result, Keselowski went to the season finale at Homestead with a 20-point lead over Johnson. While not an insurmountable lead, it continued to add to the way Keselowski had exerted his presence upon Johnson throughout the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup, and how the eventual champ continually got into the head of the former champ in a way that no other driver ever has.

    At Homestead, Johnson still had a fighting chance left, if for nothing else because he was Jimmie Johnson, five-time champ. It would be an uphill climb, but it was possible—until the curse of Keselowski struck Johnson again.

    Johnson fell behind early. Yet when it came time to make his trademark move up through the pack to catch the leaders, Johnson went in the exact opposite direction.

    The harder he pushed, the more he fell behind. Something was bound to give—and ultimately it did.

    First, as the race began to close towards the checkered flag, a dropped lug nut during a pit stop resulted in a penalty against Johnson and the No. 48 team. Not much later, and again while Johnson was pushing his Chevrolet to the limits and beyond, the drivetrain in JJ's ride gave up the ghost.

    And with it, so went his last chance at championship No. 6.

3. Be More Assertive

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    While there's no denying how successful he has been on the racetrack, Johnson has never been the overly intimidating type like the late Dale Earnhardt or Kyle Busch.

    Granted, Johnson is intimidating in his own way—you don't win five championships in a row without being that way—but Johnson has seemingly not been as assertive in the last two seasons as he's been in the past, particularly during his five-title run.

    Tied in with the necessity of getting off to a good start this season is also the need for Johnson to become the overwhelming and assertive driver he was during his championship days.

    While some may think success has spoiled Johnson or made him go soft, just remember he's still one of the most dangerous drivers out there. And I get the sense he's going to show much of his old form again in 2013.

4. Go Back to His Old Playbook

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    Like a former Super Bowl champion looking to return to his days of glory, Johnson needs to look back on his five-year championship run and review the things that worked and didn't for him—with an emphasis not only on what worked, but more so what worked the best.

    Of special note is to dominate as much as possible at his best tracks, particularly Martinsville and Dover (7 career wins each); Charlotte (6 wins); Fontana (5 wins); Indianapolis, Las Vegas and Phoenix (4 wins each); and Loudon, Darlington, Richmond and Atlanta (3 wins each).

    Add up Johnson's success at those 11 tracks and they account for 51 of his 60 career Sprint Cup wins.

    Call it comfortable familiarity, feeling at home or what have you, to be his best Johnson needs to revert back to doing his best at the places he does best, plain and simple.

5. Be a Good Soldier but Fight His Own War

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    Jimmie Johnson has been a good soldier within Hendrick Motorsports, being the consummate team player. He's been there for all his teammates, both current and former.

    But in 2013, if he's to return to championship form, Johnson must become a bit selfish, as it were, and look out mostly for No. 1. Look at last season: teammates Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon did well during the first 26 races before their Chase efforts fell apart. And let's not forget Kasey Kahne, who finished right behind Johnson in the final season standings, third and fourth, respectively.

    In a sense, Johnson needs to show up his teammates. While Hendrick Motorsports has always been an all-for-one and one-for-all organizational structure, Johnson can still be a good teammate while also trying to grab a little extra for himself in 2013.

    In fact, wasn't that kind of the same way he operated during his five championship years, too? Johnson can still help out his teammates when he can, but he has to put himself, his team and their championship chances above all else if he's to return to No. 1 in the sport.

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