Thomas Bowles · Wednesday February 22, 2006
Now that the engines have died down and Daytona Beach turns back into a Spring Break resort town, 42 of NASCAR’s 43 drivers have moved on, too. With their head held high, low, or buried in the sand (as Tony Stewart’s might have been Sunday), they can clear their minds from the rough and tumble world of NASCAR’s Super Bowl and focus on the season to come. Everyone is looking ahead instead of looking back on the week that was"¦except for NASCAR’s newest Daytona 500 winner, Jimmie Johnson.
At first glance, that can only be a good thing. Johnson gets to spend most of the next week basking in the glory of his latest victory, appearing anywhere from Letterman to Regis and Kelly to the many sports television studios around the country anxious and willing to talk to the newest Daytona 500 champ.
Such accolades are well-deserved rewards for Johnson’s trip to Victory Lane in the Great American Race. The bigger question, however, is whether Johnson will allow these obligations to cloud the focus of his long-term goal, a quest for his first ever Nextel Cup title. For as we’ve seen the last few seasons, winning the Daytona 500 is not necessarily the path to season-long success.
Check out this statistic: the last driver to win the Daytona 500 and go on to win the Nextel Cup championship was Jeff Gordon, all the way back in 1997. In fact, that’s the ONLY time the Daytona 500 winner has gone on to win the title since 1980. Since Gordon’s run to the championship, the highest a Daytona 500 winner has finished in the points was 4th (Dale Jarrett in 2000), and four of the past six Daytona 500 champions have failed to finish the season in the Top 10 in final points.
What contributes to this phenomenon? Part of it is simply that racing conditions at Daytona are completely different than any other track on the Nextel Cup schedule. Speed-slowing restrictor plates are used at only one other track on the circuit (Talladega), and the ability to run wide open around virtually the entire track makes handling less of an issue than, say, the egg-shaped terror of Darlington, or the winding road courses of Sonoma or Watkins Glen. The draft the restrictor plate racing creates at Daytona is a type of racing animal not often seen, and the skills you need to succeed there you won’t necessarily apply anywhere else.
That’s not the only reason Daytona 500 winners can struggle, though. It’s really pretty simple when you think about it"¦when you accomplish a goal as large as winning the Daytona 500, every stock car driver’s greatest dream, it’s kind of hard to refocus and set your sights on a different goal such as a season-long championship. So much energy is spent to reach the top of the mountain in the very first race, you lose the focus necessary to turn around and become a factor during the latter part of the season when you need to be on top of your game just as much as in February.
Johnson need look no further than his teammate and car owner to see how quickly it can all unravel. Last season, Jeff Gordon won the Daytona 500 for the third time, and followed that up with 2 more wins in the first 9 races, setting himself up for what many thought would be a cakewalk to his fourth Nextel Cup title. But by the midway point of the season, bad luck, poor-handling race cars, and missed setups took the wind right out of Gordon’s sails, and the team stumbled through the final ten races of the "regular" season, missing out on NASCAR’s postseason Chase for the Championship and causing Gordon’s longtime crew chief, Robbie Loomis, to part ways with the team. Beaten and battered, Gordon had to rally in the season’s final few races simply to secure an 11th-place finish in the final standings.
Johnson may soon be facing the same problems. The 500 was won without his trusted crew chief, Chad Knaus, by his side, and while Darian Grubb is capable, a race at Daytona is a whole lot easier to call from the pits than a race like Texas or Las Vegas. Depite constant denials by all involved, rumors persist that Knaus is unhappy, and may want out after the season. Not only that, but the team is probably facing a fine and points deduction from their illegal qualifying run to start off the year, which means for the first time in decades, the Daytona 500 winner won’t start the next race as the points leader.
Hopefully, Johnson will still spend the week enjoying himself as the newest Daytona 500 champion. But if he wants to end the year with a Nextel Cup trophy"¦he’ll need to quickly realize that the task at hand may be twice as hard as it was just a few short days ago.
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