Look at a list of accomplishments from the 2004 NASCAR Nextel Cup season, and Jimmie Johnson’s name is right there at the top. Most wins: Jimmie Johnson, 8. Most top 5 finishes: Jimmie Johnson, 22. Most laps led? Jimmie Johnson, 1,312. Season sweeps at a track? Johnson had 3 (Charlotte, Darlington, Pocono). Johnson was second in average start at 10.5. and average finish, 12th. In fact, Johnson came out ahead of Nextel Cup Champion Kurt Busch in all of these categories.
The only thing missing from Johnson’s 2004 list of accomplishments was the Nextel Cup. Johnson’s eight wins came on tracks both large (Pocono) and small (Martinsville) and everywhere in between. His emotional win at Atlanta in October following the deaths of ten people, seven of whom were directly connected to Hendrick Motorsports, in was selected as one of the top moments of the season by the fans. Johnson, who has never finished lower than 5th in season standings and was the first rookie in Nextel Cup Series history to lead the standings, fell just eight points short of the Nextel Cup title in the end, finishing second overall.
Racing for powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports in a car co-owned by teammate and four time champ Jeff Gordon, Johnson returns for his fourth season behind the wheel of a Nextel Cup car. Behind crew chief Chad Knaus, Johnson’s team remains basically intact. The biggest changes at Hendrick Motorsports occurred as a result of the airplane crash that killed some key members of the organization, among them head engine builder Randy Dorton, HMS president John Hendrick, and Ricky Hendrick, who owned the car belonging to Johnson’s teammate Brian Vickers.
Johnson, 29, began 2005 where he left off in 2004-in Victory Lane in last weekend’s Budweiser Shootout. Johnson will also start the season opening Daytona 500 on the outside of the front row. Johnson has not won a restrictor plate race in the regular season, but is looking to change that right out of the box. “”To win my first plate race-it wasn’t a points race, but there was a lot of money out there and a trophy that we all wanted.,” said Johnson following the Shootout. “I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to do. The only scary thing with this is that there’s only one place to go from here and that’s down. So hopefully we finish up the Duels strong and carry it into the 500.”
Experience, says Johnson, has been one of the keys to success. “It’s a night and day difference. Experience is everything in our sport, especially on the plate tracks. And my first year, from coming here for the 500 versus the Pepsi 400, it was a huge difference.
And now to be here on the start of my fourth season, I’m so much more comfortable. I feel like I was racing ARCA back in 2002 when I won the pole.”
The staff at the Frontstretch has selected Johnson to finish second in points in 2005. While Johnson does have recent history on his side (the last three Nextel Cup Champions wont he title in their fourth season in the series; Johnson begins his fourth year in 2005), Johnson’s biggest hurdle may prove to be his teammate-slash-car owner, who has four Cups of experience over Johnson when it comes to winning NASCAR titles.
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