Jimmie “Hate Me All You Want; I Still Have the Big Trophy” Johnson
2006 Ride: No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet
2006 Owner: Rick Hendrick/Jeff Gordon
2006 Crew Chief: Chad Knaus
Stats: 36 races, five wins, 13 top fives, 24 top 10s, one pole, 2006 Nextel Cup champion.
High Point: Johnson’s team always seemed to have something in reserve this year – no matter how low things seemed, they bounced back, again and again. First, it was the rules infraction found in post-qualifying inspection at Daytona in February. Johnson’s qualifying time was scrapped and crew chief Chad Knaus sent packing for four weeks; but that didn’t stop Johnson from winning Daytona, anyway. A Las Vegas triumph followed shortly after, a credit to the chemistry enjoyed by Johnson and fill-in crew chief Darian Grubb. Once Knaus returned, there were other impressive moments; Johnson spun the car in qualifying at Dover in June and started shotgun on the field, sharing a pit stall, but fought back to finish in the top 10. A flat tire at Indy that should have trapped the team at the back of the field proved no deterrent in what became Johnson’s first Allstate 400 win. And in the Chase, when it counted the most, J.J. mounted the biggest comeback of them all. With five races to go, Johnson was eighth in points, 146 points behind the leader; but then a win at Martinsville was followed by a second-place finish at Lowe’s – and Atlanta, Texas, and Phoenix. The rally was good enough to hand Johnson his first NASCAR Nextel Cup championship.
Low Point: Take your pick between the first Daytona and the second Talladega events. The rules infraction at Daytona was minor – an unapproved part raised the back window by 1/8″, but the incident dogged the No. 48 team all season. Johnson won the Daytona 500 under fill-in crew chief Grubb, but many felt that the four-week penalty NASCAR imposed on Knaus was too lenient. Then, fast forward to Talladega in October. Johnson was running second in the closing laps with teammate Brian Vickers behind him. Pulling out to pass on the final lap with Vickers pushing him in the draft, Johnson (and race leader Dale Earnhardt Jr.) got spun when Vickers misjudged his distance by an inch or two and got into Johnson’s bumper. Johnson came to rest within sight of the finish line in what became his only DNF of 2006.
Summary: The season started under somewhat of a black cloud for the No. 48 team after the cheating allegations at Daytona (although had NASCAR deducted the 50 points that became the standard for similar infractions this year, Johnson still would have won the title). The car never failed another inspection in 2006. Johnson’s season was all about overcoming the obstacles, though, including clearing a history filled with extensive problems at restrictor-plate tracks by winning Daytona while claiming the spring race at Talladega, too. Johnson’s hot streak leveled off somewhat after Las Vegas, but a win in the non-points All-Star Challenge led to a solid points lead for most of the summer. Johnson overcame a damaged car to win the Allstate 400, making him the only driver to win Daytona, the All-Star event, and Indy in a championship year. Johnson has always been dogged by a late-summer slump, and this year is no exception. From Indy until the fall race at Lowe’s, Johnson did not score a top-five finish, finishing in the top 10 only once in that same stretch to turn him from championship contender to Chase also-ran with a snap of the fingers. Then, just as quickly, the team simply turned it around. Johnson and his team never gave up on the championship, and at the end they got rewarded with a spot at the head table in New York, basking in the glory of a job well done.
2007 Outlook: There is no reason to think that this team is going to stop running up front anytime soon. Johnson’s worst points finish in five years on the circuit is fifth, and an offseason injury to Johnson’s left wrist is expected to heal with little effect on his early performance. If the team can continue to thrive under pressure, 2007 should again find the No. 48 team on or near the top of the heap.