The Yellow Stripe · Danny Peters · Tuesday April 15, 2008
If the officials of NASCAR could draw up the perfect Sprint Cup champion - a man who would best represent the sport to the racing community and the world at large – then you can be pretty sure they would use Jimmie Johnson as a template. He looks the part, always says the right things, plugs his sponsors with relentless efficiency, never seems flustered… and he even has a photogenic wife. Over the last couple of seasons — with the exception of some pre-2007 season golf cart hijinks — Johnson has been the very definition for many of what it means to be a graceful, deferential back-to-back champion when outside the race car.
Much more importantly, though, Johnson has been the consummate pro on the track – a hard-nosed competitor whose drive to win still trumps any championship trophy. Go back to Texas with three races to go in the 2007 season, and watch him run side-by-side with Matt Kenseth for the lead late in the going. Those closing laps, in a nutshell, are all you need to know about what sort of driver Johnson is; there was never a moment where you thought the two would wreck, but there was never any doubt that Johnson would even consider backing off. In the last two full seasons, he’s racked up an astonishing 48 Top 10s, 34 Top 5s, and 15 wins, an incredible 20% of the total number of races he’s entered. In short, Johnson's made the most competitive racing series in the world look easy — while making it difficult to criticize any part of how he’s getting the job done.
But after two years of uninterrupted accomplishments, the start of the 2008 season was far from ideal for the Lowe's Chevrolet team. After five races with only one Top 10 finish, questions were being asked about Johnson's ability to challenge for a third consecutive crown. Was Jimmie done? Had Chad Knaus lost his strategy plot? Had the rest of the field caught up? Was Johnson, and indeed, HMS as an organization watching the edge they so clearly enjoyed last season slip away? Was 2008 destined to be a year of frustration after so much recent success?
Allaying the fears, in a curious way, was the fact that the No. 48 was not the only Hendrick car stumbling out of the gate. Casey Mears has flirted with disaster all season long, and Jeff Gordon is still outside the Top 12 in the standings. Only the No. 88 has run well consistently, with six Top 10s in the first eight races to start the year. So, if anyone was going to break the zero for the 2008 HMS Victory Lane slump, why wouldn’t it be the El Cajon, California native? That the win was a fuel mileage gamble just makes it that much sweeter for a team built on strategy along with speed. With the box that crew chiefs can operate in ever smaller, it will increasingly take gutsy calls and calculated gambles to win races. On Saturday night, Knaus rolled the dice and appropriately came up snake eyes in Phoenix for his driver, a move he’s made so many times before with the No. 48.
So, is this spell of solid form the start of something special for Johnson, or just a brief purple patch? Here's three reasons why the quest for the three-peat might just start here:
Knaus and the rest of the No. 48 team
With veteran leadership and an experienced pit crew, Johnson has all the tools he needs in the shop, garage, and the pits to run competitively in every race. HMS may have lost much of that advantage they had last season, but adversity works both ways. When you're behind, you work twice as hard to catch up, and a vigorous expanded test schedule for the No. 48 team has helped iron out the early season kinks. Knaus and Johnson know exactly what it takes to win; after all, they’ve done it time and again these past few years, and that knowledge is invaluable over the long grind of a NASCAR season. Once Johnson is more solidly ensconced in the Top 12, expect Knaus to experiment with Chase-specific setups that may or may not work (as the team was supposedly doing earlier this year already). For as he proved in Phoenix, the man’s not afraid to take a gamble - and more often than not, it seems to pay off for the No. 48 team.
Johnson's been there and done that
Don't underestimate the power of knowing what it actually takes to win a Sprint Cup crown. The team can take a bad day (or even a terrible day) much more in stride, never panicking amidst a stretch of races in which luck doesn’t roll their way. NASCAR has and always will be a sport absolutely of the moment, and what happened last week doesn't matter by the time you unload at the next track; you get the sense that the No. 48 team understands this more than most. In addition, Johnson has won at all but seven tracks on the NASCAR circuit, and he has at least a Top 5 at each of those venues where he is winless. Translate this into Chase terms, and Johnson has 15 total wins at the 7 of the 10 Chase tracks. Provided he makes the final field of 12, the champ will be a threat to win almost every week. In 2006, he made up a 165 point deficit with seven races to go; in 2007, he was never lower than third, but still had to run balls out over the last five races to defeat the relentlessly quick Gordon. So, Johnson's won the title different ways, and he's adaptable - a vital quality to have over the final ten events.
In many ways, the pressure is off
Even if Johnson never wins another Sprint Cup crown, he will still go down as one of the All-Time greats. Only 15 drivers have won more than one championship, and with 34 wins (and counting) he is already eighteenth on the All-Time list. To win one Championship takes unstinting effort, incredible talent, and that all-important slice of luck. To win back-to-back titles is a significantly more impressive achievement – something only nine drivers in the history of the sport have done throughout NASCAR’s 60-year existence. There are those that would argue that the opportunity to equal a great such as Cale Yarborough heaps unwanted pressure on the shoulders of Johnson; but the fact is, if he doesn't manage it, those unsuccessful efforts would not make him a failure. Far from it, in fact; and if he does win a third straight championship, then you could argue that the achievement — given the brutally competitive nature of the sport today — is more impressive this time around as compared to 1978.
I feel like I end almost every edition of the Yellow Stripe these days with the line "there's a long way to go;" and, after 8 races, it's still true. That said, Talladega will mark the quarter point of the season, and a third of the distance to setting the Chase field; so gradually, the pretenders are being sorted from the contenders. It’s a good time to evaluate exactly where you are; and headed into the second off weekend, Johnson is right where he wants to be. The first win is under his belt, and don't be surprised if a second follows soon, especially at tracks like Talladega and Lowe’s where Johnson has been strong in recent years.
But regardless, a Phoenix win all but squashed any questions surrounding the two-time defending champ. For those wondering, normal service has most very definitely been resumed for a certain blue and black Chevrolet. Watch out, NASCAR; the No. 48 is baaaaack.
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