The Frontstretch: Driver Review: Jimmie Johnson by Amy Henderson -- Friday December 14, 2007

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Driver Review: Jimmie Johnson

Amy Henderson · Friday December 14, 2007

 

Jimmie Johnson
2007 Ride: No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
2007 Primary Sponsor: Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse
2007 Owners: Rick Hendrick / Jeff Gordon
2007 Crew Chief: Chad Knaus

2007 Stats: 10 wins, 20 Top 5s, 24 Top 10s, 4 Poles, 4 DNFs, 2007 Nextel Cup Champion.

High Point: One could argue that Jimmie Johnson didn't have his typical season. No, this one was better. Johnson posted a career-high ten wins on the year, four of those coming during the critical Chase for the Nextel Cup and ultimately propelling Johnson to his second consecutive championship.

Johnson's team has become the masters of the Chase format – using the summer months to prepare for the Fall races, and then running up front once the playoffs begin. Last year, they proved they could overcome every kind of adversity, from engine problems to crashes caused by their own teammate, and still take home the Cup. This year, they proved they could avoid adversity altogether, when even a spin at Charlotte resulted in a 14th-place finish. Of course, one race later an enviable four-race win streak had begun, propelling Johnson from 68 points down to 86 ahead of championship rival Jeff Gordon.

The only remaining question is, what can they possibly do for an encore?

Low Point: Johnson received one of the harshest penalties all year at Sonoma when his car was found to be slightly outside the template specifications in pre-qualifying practice. In addition to losing crew chief Chad Knaus for six weeks (Jeff Gordon and crew chief Steve Letarte got the same penalties for an identical car), Johnson and Gordon received an unprecedented penalty when they were not allowed to practice or qualify that week, having to rely on their positions inside the top 35 in owner points to make the field.

The penalties levied seemed to kick off what has become an annual occurrence for Johnson: the summer slump. Johnson had two nasty wrecks at Chicago and Indianapolis, and in June and July posted only a single Top 5 finish.

Summary: Johnson and crew chief Knaus are masters at making chicken salad out of…well, you know. That was evident from the start in 2007, when, following a 39th-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500, they went on to win at Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Martinsville, to grab half of the first six events. Car of Tomorrow, old car, it didn't matter as the Spring rolled on; Johnson won again at Richmond and posted five straight Top 10 finishes from Phoenix to Charlotte, even under the intense scrutiny that being the reigning champion brings a team. Johnson actually counted Charlotte as one of his top three races in 2007; not because if his tenth-place effort, but because his best friend since childhood, Casey Mears, won his first race.

Then came that summer slump, starting in June and dropping Johnson as low as ninth in points. He did grab a fifth place at New Hampshire, his only one in June or July – but at the low point of Knaus’ suspension, a handful of wrecks left the team wondering if they would even have to fight to make the Chase.

Then, as suddenly as it began, the slump ended with Top 5 runs at Pocono, Watkins Glen, and Michigan, to go along with back-to-back wins at Richmond and Johnson's home track in Fontana, California (Johnson hails from El Cajon, California) – the resurgence not by chance coinciding with Knaus' return to the pit box. On the merit of his six wins, Johnson entered the Chase as the point leader.

A pair of 14th-place finishes at Dover and Charlotte was as bad as it ever got for Team 48 during the Chase. Although Johnson fell behind teammate Jeff Gordon for a few weeks in the middle, four straight wins at Martinsville, Atlanta, Texas, and Phoenix put the title in easy grasp, and a seventh-place finish at Homestead clinched the deal as Johnson hoisted his second Nextel Cup in two years.

2008 Outlook: Johnson's impressive career points resume includes two championships, two runner-up finishes, and two fifth-place campaigns. Bear in mind that his Cup career only spans six years; not only that, but Johnson ranks second among active, full-time drivers in wins going into 2008, with 33.

What do all of those stats point to? Another winning season, of course. Johnson certainly has proved capable, and with all the pieces returning intact from last year’s title run, it's not a stretch to expect him to be in position to tie Cale Yarborough's modern era record of three straight titles.

2006 Frontstretch Grade: A.
2007 Grade: A+.

Editor's Note : The 2007 season is over, and even the Final Chase exam has come to a close - which means it's time to give each driver their annual year-end evaluation. For the second straight year, your favorite Frontstretch staff members are giving driver reviews for every full-time wheelman on the circuit, giving you insight into the seasons of anyone from A.J. Allmendinger to J.J. Yeley. Want to know when your favorite driver's getting featured? Check out this link for our writing schedule, and be sure to keep coming in every weekday this offseason for even more original content by the Frontstretch!

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