The Frontstretch: 2013 NASCAR Driver Review: Jimmie Johnson by Amy Henderson -- Monday December 2, 2013

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2013 NASCAR Driver Review: Jimmie Johnson

Amy Henderson · Monday December 2, 2013


2013 Ride: No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
2013 Primary Sponsor: Lowe’s/Kobalt Tools
2013 Owner: Rick Hendrick/Jeff Gordon
2013 Crew Chief: Chad Knaus

Stats: 36 races; 6 wins; 16 top-5 finishes; 24 top-10 finishes; 4 poles; 1 DNF; average finish 11.2, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion
Best Finish: 1st (six times: Daytona I, Martinsville I, Pocono I, Daytona II, Dover II, Texas II)

Jimmie Johnson

2013 Team Ranking: 1st of 4. For the eleventh season in a row, Johnson was the top driver among his elite teammates at Hendrick Motorsports (the only time he wasn’t at the top of his team’s list was his rookie season of 2002). Johnson and his HMS shopmate, DaleEarnhardt, Jr., both largely escaped the run of terrible luck that plagued both Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne in 2013, and Johnson’s nearly flawless Chase run sewed up his place on top of both his team and the season points standings.

High Point: Homestead. Johnson entered the season finale with a sizeable point lead over Matt Kenseth, needing to finish 23rd or better to ensure the No. 48 another title. For Johnson, though, Homestead-Miami Speedway has always been a bit troublesome—in 12 races prior to the 2013, he has finished worse than 32rd four times, a full third of his races there. This year’s edition had its tense moments, but Johnson was able to deliver a ninth-place finish, and more importantly, his sixth career Sprint Cup title, a number which ranks third all-time and positions Johnson within one year of a shot at tying the sport’s immortals with seven.

Low Point: From Michigan-II to Richmond-II. After finishing eighth at Watkins Glen, Johnson’s place atop the points looked invincible. He had 75 points over second-place Clint Bowyer, nearly two full races. And that’s when the wheels nearly fell off. In the next four races, Johnson finished no better than 28th (40th, 36th, 28th, 40th) and by the time the Richmond race was over, the point lead was gone. Carl Edwards was on top of the standings before the Chase points reset, and Johnson’s fans were left wondering if the team could recover for a title run.

Summary: After two seasons of not having the best parking space in the garage, Johnson put the competition on notice early that he wanted his spot back by winning the season-opening Daytona 500. He followed that up with a second-place run at Phoenix, and already the title talk began.

Johnson dropped out of the top points position after a subpar Bristol and Fontana, but recovered his form and the lead a week later, winning from the pole in Martinsville and kicking off a string of five top-6 finishes in six races. The title favorite talk heated up again, especially as title rival Matt Kenseth suffered a bit while Toyota tried to solve some engine woes.

Johnson grabbed two more wins as the summer heated up, taking the checkers at Pocono and completing the Daytona sweep. In a nine-race stretch beginning with the first race at Pocono, Johnson finished worse than 13th just once, coming in 28th a Michigan, the track that has long been his Achilles’ heel.

Johnson probably would have been happy not to visit Michigan for a second time after his summer hot streak, but the series headed there for the second time in August, and Johnson’s 40th-place run kicked off the worst four-race stretch of the driver’s career at a time when a team needs momentum on its side leading into the Chase.

After the points reset that followed those four abysmal races, Johnson trailed Matt Kenseth as the Chase began. Kenseth had been looking more like the title favorite with each passing week in August and September, and when Kenseth kicked off the Chase with back-to-back wins at Chicago and Loudon, Johnson (and everyone else) became an afterthought, though he opened the Chase with a fifth-place and a fourth-place run.

Johnson won at Dover the following week, setting a track record in the process with his eighth trip to victory lane, something no other driver has done since the track was added to the Cup schedule. Johnson gained a spot in points with the win, but still trailed Kenseth by eight markers. Johnson followed up the win with a sixth at Kansas and a fourth at Charlotte, but despite a fourth-place average finish through five races, still trailed Kenseth at the halfway point.

The tide turned for Johnson at, of all places, Talladega, a track with which Johnson has had a love-hate relationship and where, despite having four pole and two wins at the superspeedway, he also has eight DNF’s in 24 starts. It wasn’t that great a finish for Johnson this time around either, as he finished 13th, but it was better than Kenseth’s 20th and good enough for Johnson to take the point lead. Three straight top-5 runs at Martinsville, Texas, and Phoenix, including his sixth win of the year at Texas, solidified the lead for Johnson, and his ninth-place finish at Homestead sealed the six-pack for the 38-year-old California native.

Off the race track, Johnson, his wife Chandra and 3-year-old daugher Evie welcomed their second child, a daughter named Lydia, in September. Johnson was named NASCAR Illustrated magazine’s Person of the Year in 2013 for his charity work with the Jimmie Johnson Foundation, which has raised nearly $6 million for children, families, schools, and communities.

2014 Outlook: The difference between Jimmie Johnson now and the Jimmie Johnson of five or six years ago is that he’s among the title favorites (and for good reason), but he’s no longer the only driver at the top of the list heading into a new year. That’s a reflection on the level of competition in the sport, because Johnson has defined himself as the best driver of his generation in the sport, and injected his name into discussion about whether when all is said and done, he’ll be the best the sport has ever seen.

One constant in Johnson’s career has been crew chief Chad Knaus, whom many are quick to credit with the lion’s share of the team’s success over the last twelve seasons. That part is debatable, but Knaus has certainly been an excellent influence on Johnson throughout the years, and the cars he prepares are top of the line, every week. Knaus is signed through the 2014 season and it’s been hinted that a longer-term deal is in the works, so it’s unlikely that anything is going to change on top of the pit box for Johnson in the near future. Johnson also has longtime car chief Ron Malec in his corner, and while the car chief’s influence on a team’s performance is largely overlooked, these two have been working together since Johnson’s ASA days, so Malec knows what Johnson’s looking for in a car as well as anyone.

In other words, look for more of the same from Johnson in 2014—while he’s not the only driver who goes in as an early title favorite, there’s no way he can be left out of the conversation.

2012 Grade: B.
2013 Grade: A: Another stellar performance for Johnson no matter how you slice the season. There’s still room for improvement in a couple of places, mainly on pit road, but overall, this team is about as good as it gets.

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12/02/2013 11:18 PM

Watching Green Bay without Aaron Rodgers makes me wonder about the 48 without Johnson. If he couldn’t race it would be interesting to see who would drive the car . I wonder if it would be the same “legal” car.