2012 Ride: No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
2012 Primary Sponsor: Lowe’s / Kobalt Tools
2012 Owner: Rick Hendrick / Jeff Gordon
2012 Crew Chief: Chad Knaus
Stats: 36 races; 5 wins; 18 top-5 finishes; 24 top-10 finishes; 6 DNF; average finish 11.2, third in driver points.
Best Finish: 1st (five times: Darlington, Dover I, Indianapolis, Martinsville II, Texas II; All-Star race)
2012 Team Ranking: 1 – Johnson was the top driver in the Hendrick Motorsports stable in 2012, though all three of his teammates also enjoyed Chase berths. Johnson’s five wins led all HMS drivers, and he finished 15 points ahead of fourth-place Kasey Kahne. Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnahrdt, Jr. finished tenth and 12th, respectively. This is the tenth year in a row that Johnson has been the highest points finisher at HMS; the last time he wasn’t at the top of his team’s list was his rookie season of 2002, when Johnson finished fifth, seven points behind Jeff Gordon.
High Point: Darlington. Johnson’s third career win at the Lady in Black (and the 56th of his career) marked a milestone for team owner Rick Hendrick: his 200th win as an owner at the Cup level. It also marked a return to the Johnson who had won five straight titles from 2006-2012 but struggled in 2011 with the worst points finish of his career. Johnson used his Darlington victory as a springboard to two more big wins in the next three weeks, including the million-dollar All-Star event and a record-tying seventh win at Dover.
Low Point: Phoenix and Homestead. Johnson had a seven-point lead going into Phoenix, riding the wave of two straight wins—and then it all fell apart. Johnson spun the car on his on at Phoenix after the bead on his right front tire melted, likely as a result of Johnson overdriving a car that was never close to the winning cars he’s had in the past at Phoenix. Johnson still had a slim chance heading to Hometead. In fact, at one point, he and crew chief Chad Knaus devised a strategy that almost certainly would have given Johnson the title, but a pit road mistake and a broken rear end gear put an end to Johnson’s title bid and cost him second place as well.
Summary: After leaving NASCAR Nation to wonder for five years if anyone else would ever snap his championship streak, Johnson spent most of 2012 trying to rekindle the magic after a 2011 season that was the worst of his career. He came close, but in the end, Johnson and Co. had nobody but themselves to blame for a title slipped away.
Johnson’s season opened under the scrutiny of NASCAR and the suspicion of race fans after a visual inspection at Daytona revealed a C-post on the car that “didn’t look right” in the words of a NASCAR official. That brought a hefty penalty, though the car never took to the track, costing Johnson 25 points before he had earned any and a six-week suspension for Knaus. The fine and suspension were later overturned on appeal, most likely because the car was never actually inspected. Daytona didn’t get any better for Johnson, who was involved in a lap 2 crash triggered by Elliott Sadler. One race, one DNF.
Things improved after that; Johnson never finished worse than 12th in the next eight races, which included four top-4 finishes. A blown engine at Talladega ended that streak for Johnson: ten races, two DNF’s.
Johnson put Talladega firmly in his rear view the following week, winning at Darlington. That set off another streak of top finishes, including an All-Star victory and a win at Dover. In the six race stretch from Darlington t Sonoma, Johnson finished outside the top 5 just once, with an 11th-place effort at Charlotte. But then came Daytona;s summer race, where Johnson was again caught up in a multi-car crash, this time at lap 123. Three restrictor-plate races, three DNF’s.
And as he had done twice before, Johnson shook off that finish and finished third at Watkins Glen two weeks later, a career best. But his engine couldn’t hold up at Michigan, and Johnson’s early exit came with an uncharacteristic refusal to talk about it. Four races past halfway, four DNF’s.
Johnson bounced back with a runner-up result at Bristol, but a crash at Atlanta again ended his day early. Five DNF’s.
When the Chase began, Johnson was never far from the front of the pack. In the first three races, Johnson had two second places and a fourth. He was caught in the last-lap melee at Talladega, but managed to be credited with his only restrictor-plate finish of the year, limping home 17th. He followed that up with a third place at Charlotte, ninth place in Kansas, and a pair of wins at Martinsville and Texas. He had the points lead heading into the last two races, and lit looked to be one of those years again.
But it wasn’t. A crash at Phoenix meant a 32nd-place finish 38 laps down. A chance at Homestead went up in smoke along with Johnson’s rear end gear. 36 races, one title shot, 6 DNF’s.
It will be those six DNF’s that ultimately tell the tale of Johnson’s season in many ways, which is unfortunate. They cost him the title and at least one more year before he has an opportunity to think about catching NASCAR’s legends and a slice of immortality. His 11.2 average finish, the fourth-best of his career, pales in comparison to the 6.4 average he posted in the 30 races he finished. No driver who attempted to complete every race in 2012 failed to do so as often as Johnson did. Unfortunately for Johnson, it’s what he didn’t do that defines an otherwise stellar 2012.
2013 Outlook: Just two years ago, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Jimmie Johnson would eventually catch and possibly even eclipse Richard Petty’s and Dale Earnhardt’s record of seven titles. Now, it’s still on the table, but Johnson’s team no longer enjoys the position of being two steps ahead of the competition. Others have caught up in the last couple of years, most notably by playing the strategy card. The strategies that won Johnson five straight titles simply don’t cut it anymore, and that’s one thing they need to address. Late in 2012, they did address it, and nearly won the whole shebang, but they ultimately fell short in part because they were consistently outfoxed (or at least they didn’t outfox everyone else) on pit road for much of the year. They still have great equipment, a great team and a great driver on their side, and a top 5 points finish should be expected. A sixth championship wouldn’t be a great shock, either, as Johnson will certainly enter the season as one of the favorites. He’s just not the only favorite anymore.
2011 Frontstretch.com Grade: C.
2012 Grade: B: Overall, Johnson’s team was much improved over 2011, but they still fell short of their potential.
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