Jimmie Johnson started 2013 with just a tinge of curmudgeon in his tone. He made it a point to note that Brad Keselowski, the guy who had beaten him to the title just a few months before, wasn't quite mature enough yet in the role as the sport's title holder.
It wasn't a stern comment or even a slam of Keselowski as Johnson made clear during that media day appearance ahead of the Daytona 500, but it was perhaps a little revelatory into the five-time champion's preseason mindset. After losing out on two consecutive championship fights, Johnson seemed to be toiling. He was tired of getting beat. The axe was primed for grinding.
That was Johnson's most written about episode of the season-opening Daytona Speedweeks ahead of the 500. He was an afterthought in most picks for the race, either because picking him as a winner was too easy or some had thought the intense strength of the No. 48 had started to lose muster.
Naturally, Johnson drove impeccably in the season opener. Starting ninth, Johnson led five laps in the early going before settling in. With 15 laps left, he made his move to the lead. And with just 10 laps to go, he took it for the final time—from none other than Keselowski.
It was a win of reassertion, a win showing that Johnson wasn't quite ready to move from his dominant perch even after two years of not scoring enough points in the moments that mattered most. It was an immortalizing second Daytona 500 win. Perhaps most importantly, it was a win that set him immediately at the top of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings.
After leading for two more races, a poor 22nd-place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway dropped Johnson to third in points. Uncharacteristically, Johnson missed the top-10 again in the very next race at Auto Club Speedway. Sure, the 12th-place finish was fine by most standards, but for Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, anything less than winning is typically unacceptable.
They quickly cured that where Johnson routinely tends to reset and re-plot his course back to the top: Martinsville Speedway. The No. 48 dominated the field for Johnson's second win of the year, leading 346 laps after starting on pole.
Those themes of vengeance and retribution appeared to shine brightly again at Pocono Raceway during the Cup Series' June stop.
Johnson and the No. 48 team were reeling—at least as much as that camp can ever truly be reeling—heading to Pocono.
Electrical issues and a spin by Johnson doomed a decent car for the Coca-Cola 600 to a 22nd-place finish. Then, at Dover, Johnson lost out on a win when a controversial restart between him and then-leader Juan Pablo Montoya drew a NASCAR penalty. The No. 48 finished 17th after leading a race-high 143 laps.
What followed was a return of the Johnson who was always cordial and respectful, but obviously displeased with both the ruling and the recent results. He talked at Pocono about how Montoya had found a loop hole in NASCAR's restart rules and how he wouldn't make the mistake again. Pocono, to use a term often shared among the No. 48 group, needed to produce "maximum points" in response to the Dover mishap and the Charlotte struggles.
And boy, did they ever earn that.
Johnson led 123 of the 160 laps of the 400-mile race and hardly ever felt pressure from the series of late restarts that could have doomed his day. It was just last summer when Johnson crashed at Pocono in what was the final restart while leading.
Instead, Pocono was perfect in mostly every manner for the No. 48—pit stops didn't derail the team, mechanical gremlins never showed and Johnson scored those maximum points. In reality, it was just a differing pit strategy and a few rounds of green flag pit stops that prevented Johnson—who started from the pole—from leading every lap in Sunday's race.
It was vengeance on the beast of poor finishes, and maybe some revenge on the NASCAR penalty call the team so desperately disagreed with one week prior at Dover. Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus, ever calculating, disputed the idea that there was an enhanced focus thanks to recent results.
"The one thing I feel we do really good as a team is we don't focus too much on what happened yesterday or last week," Knaus said, also saying his driver was a "pinnacle Californian" who doesn't hold a grudge. "We always try to keep eyes forward, and I think that gives us always a little bit clearer view. Sometimes it's pretty easy to get clouded."
But Johnson didn't play his cards so close to the chest afterwards, admitting that Dover's results—and, more narrowly, the restart issue—was still playing on his mind. Johnson said he was ready to somehow make a point on-track with a late restart, detailing how he felt NASCAR had wronged his team a week before.
"I wanted to prove a point and show everybody really what could happen in that restart zone than what happened to me last week, but I couldn't do it to a teammate," Johnson said, referring to teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. "I just couldn't. I guess if things stay the way they do, I'll save that for another day and prove my point even more."
If things do stay the way they do for Johnson, his reprisal to all that has wronged him (real or perceived) won't bring a lot of happiness to the field. With the Pocono win, Johnson now has three wins in his first 14 races of the season for the third time in his career. The other two came in 2006 and 2007—both championship years for the No. 48.
Johnson also has an incredible 51 point lead on the field. That's a large enough lead for Johnson to start casually considering the possibilities of skipping the final regular season race at Richmond International Raceway should his pregnant wife go into labor early that weekend.
With the payback Johnson has been delivering after poor outings, the field probably won't want to find out what happens after he misses a race.
Quotations for this column unless otherwise noted were obtained first hand from NASCAR press conference transcripts.