NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2009 Season Preview: Can Anyone Keep Jimmie Johnson From Making History?

Editor’s Note: After another long offseason, NASCAR is set to return to our lives with the 31st Annual Bud Shootout this Saturday! That means it’s time to get the blood racing and your mind fixated on another year of our sport. Monday, February 2nd marks the last of our six-part season preview… if you missed any of the others, click the links below to read and enjoy!

Part One: NASCAR And The Economy
Part Two: Joey Logano’s Rookie Year
Part Three: Should The Car of Tomorrow Be Changed?
Part Four: Can Mark Martin Contend For A Title Again?
Part Five: Who’s Got The Best Chance To Challenge NASCAR’s Big Four?

Today’s Season Preview Topic: Jimmie Johnson is attempting to do something that’s never been done in the history of NASCAR: four straight championships. What will they need to do to get over the hump – and is it possible?

Tom Bowles, Editor-In-Chief: (Mondays/Bowles-Eye View)

No question about it: Johnson and Chad Knaus have the Chase mastered like no other. Forget three championships; with just a little more luck, they could have easily won all five of the title trophies handed out under this new format.

But here’s the key to that paragraph I just wrote: racing luck. There’s no doubt that with the talent on the No. 48 team, they’ll clearly be not just a postseason participant but one of the top seeds to contend with once the 2009 Chase begins. It’s just that at some point, the law of averages has to catch up with everyone – even the unflappable Johnson and Knaus. Did you know that since a Talladega wreck back in fall, 2006, Johnson has gone 26 Chase races without finishing lower than 15th? Think about that for a second; no matter what you think about the guy, that’s an absolutely amazing accomplishment. If that streak continued through 2009, the number would jump to 36 – the equivalent to a full season of Sprint Cup competition.

Well, it’s hard to imagine bad luck evading Johnson for the equivalent of one full year’s worth of races. At some point, something like a faulty part, an unavoidable wreck or poor pit strategy is going to bite this team in the butt and give the No. 48 a bad race. When that happens, it’ll at least open the door for someone to walk in and give this team a run for the championship. Whether they’ll wrestle it from Jimmie is anyone’s guess; but it’s hard to imagine title number four, if he gets it, will be anything like the cakewalk of 2008.

Toni Montgomery, Senior Editor: (Fridays/Rick Crawford Driver Diary)

Anything is possible. Just because it’s never been done doesn’t mean it can’t be done. I know it’s not quite the same thing, but is anyone here familiar with a guy named Michael Schumacher? He won five in a row in Formula 1. When he won the fifth, he did the “impossible” and broke the record of four consecutive championships set by Juan Manuel Fangio, a record that had been said for years could never be broken. At least, not until Schumacher tied it – then suddenly, it didn’t seem so out of reach, especially for a driver that seemed to be an unstoppable force. Sound familiar?

Amy Henderson, Assistant Editor: (Fridays/Holding A Pretty Wheel)

Is it possible? Absolutely, it is possible. Johnson and Knaus are arguably one of the best driver/crew chief combinations ever to take to the track, and neither has ever rested on his laurels – so they will be a formidable combination. The No. 48 team will never, ever give up, and that makes them champions. There are some huge obstacles in their way, though – most notably the test ban. This team tested more then 20 times in 2008 en route to the championship, and how they decide to work around that new restriction could be the key in giving them another extra boost.

However, the new Ford engine – which will allow the Fords to make more downforce than Johnson’s Chevrolets – along with the ridiculous and unfair disadvantage NASCAR served them is a serious roadblock. In the end, it could turn out to be the one hurdle they simply cannot clear.

Cami Starr, Fantasy Racing Editor: (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans)

Johnson and Co. don’t need to do anything; it’s the competition that needs to show they can knock them off. Johnson and Knaus have the Chase system down pat; all they have to do each year is be good enough to make the top 12 – which, given their equipment and talent, is basically a no brainer. Because once those two make it, they have shown over the past three years they are better than anyone over the final 10 races in this format. When NASCAR came up with the Chase, they changed the game; and nobody plays that game better than the No. 48 team.

Matt Taliaferro, Assistant Editor: (Thursdays/Fanning The Flames)

It’s very possible for Johnson to make history; and after the last three seasons, I dare say it’s highly likely. As for a “hump” to get over, I don’t see that the No. 48 team has one standing in its way. Their biggest challenge will come in the form of Carl Edwards; but his team spent a lot of time, energy, resources, and effort last season only to finish second. Depending on how strong the No. 99 finds its program come September, the answer will not only determine its own success – but that of the No. 48.

Bryan Davis Keith, Assistant Editor: (Sundays/Nationwide Breakdown)

It’s not only possible… it’s going to happen. The Chase is running on the same tracks, the same essential personnel for Johnson are all returning, and with testing hampered in 2009, the superiority of Hendrick equipment will still be very evident – and likely challenged even less on race days this year.

Mike Lovecchio, Assistant Editor: (Mondays/5 Points To Ponder)

If they avoid a season of complacency, the No. 48 will be right there in the thick of things at the end of the season. Barring a minor miracle, Johnson should make the Chase, and when he hits those postseason tracks… watch out. Again.

Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer: (Mondays/Thinkin’ Out Loud)

Anything can happen, but I’d bet my left nut against a stale doughnut Johnson doesn’t win another title in 2009. Yeah, Johnson and the No. 48 team have this Chase disaster figured out to a degree that’s almost cynical and unsightly. They were the first to espouse the notion that the “regular season” doesn’t much matter; you just put yourself in position where you’re in the Chase, then unload a can of Whup-Ass on the other 11 teams that make it. As well as they run, it’s hard to count them out as title contenders; but then again, it wasn’t that long ago that Jeff Gordon winning a seventh title to match Petty and Earnhardt seemed a foregone conclusion – and he couldn’t even win a race last year.

I’ve been following this sport a long time. Teams like Petty Engineering, Junior Johnson’s outfit and Richard Childress Racing won strings of titles… but when the bottom fell out, it did so quickly and without warning. The problem here is the No. 48 team has given the rest of the (moneyed) players in the field a stationary target to shoot at. I’m sure the Doolin-Dalton gang in their prime never expected a rough afternoon at Coffeyville.

Jeff Meyer, Senior Writer: (Thursdays/Voices From The Heartland)

I am going to answer this in the form these questions have been asked.

First, J.J. will need the permission of the sanctioning body to win four titles. Then he will have to “get over” the rest of the racers. He will need to be “anointed” by Obama, thus avoiding the stigma of being the Minnesota Vikings or Oklahoma Sooners of racing. Of course, he will need to have ample testing on Goodyear tires, too. Only then he will be able to accomplish the unthinkable…

Tommy Thompson, Senior Writer: (Wednesdays/Thompson In Turn 5)

There is no hump for Knaus, Johnson, and the largely intact Lowe’s team – the road to four-in-a-row is straight, smooth and has been well scouted. These guys know what to do and how to do it; so, the only thing that will stop them is if someone learns to do what they do… but better. Roush Fenway Racing and Edwards are close to figuring it all out, but expect Johnson and team to step it up even another notch in 2009!

Beth Lunkenheimer, Frontstretch Truck Series Expert: (Fridays/Tearing Apart The Trucks)

It’s clear to anyone who pays even the slightest bit of attention to NASCAR that Johnson and Knaus have figured something out other teams haven’t… yet. There is a very real possibility that Johnson could win a fourth straight championship; but there are also quite a few other teams with the capability to challenge the No. 48, and feel like they’re ready to take the Sprint Cup trophy home with them after Homestead in November. All Johnson needs to do is worry about the season one race at a time, because if he gets ahead of himself and starts thinking about making history, he’ll most likely stumble and fall.

Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: (Wednesdays/Voice Of Vito)

When Johnson won his first title in 2006, it was heralded as being a long time coming. In 2007, the repeat performance was not that much of a surprise. But eyebrows (both of them in Johnson’s case) were raised after his third title in 2008, tying Cale Yarborough’s record of three consecutive championships from 1976-78.

Can Johnson win a record-setting fourth? Absolutely. Will he? Probably. The only thing that will prevent it, in fact, will likely be his own teammates. Not that there’s anything malicious there, but look at who he is racing both with and against: Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and now Mark Martin. Those three have 134 wins between the three of them, along with Gordon’s four titles. Gone at Hendrick are the teams that wore the dreaded “R&D” moniker or drivers that didn’t fit in or get along with one another. The strongest team in NASCAR just got that much better, and there’s plenty of pie to go around for everyone to get a slice.

Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch NASCAR Rookie Expert: (Mondays/Rookie Report)

The No. 48 team has already seemed to do the impossible over the past three years, so a fourth straight championship is not out of the question. To accomplish this feat, though, the team will need to work like they finished in 43rd place last year. There is no question that Rick Hendrick’s organization will be the crème of the crop once again this season, but what will pose the biggest challenge to this driver are the other teams who will be better this year than they ever were before. Roush Fenway and Joe Gibbs Racing both showed signs of dominance in 2008, and will have the capabilities to do even more damage this season. Johnson and company will need to figure out how to make a great team even better in order to stay ahead of the competition, and that means avoiding the status quo… as comfortable as that may seem to be.

Danny Peters, Senior Writer: (Tuesdays/Yellow Stripe)

Yes, it’s definitely possible, and in large part due to Chad Knaus. If anyone can make it happen, the crew chief for the No. 48 can. I wouldn’t put my mortgage on Johnson completing an unprecedented fourpeat yet; but he’s the man the rest of the pack will need to beat to win the championship.

Kurt Smith, Senior Writer: (Fridays/Happy Hour)

Not only would I say it’s possible – I would say Johnson has a better chance than anyone to win again this year. Chad Knaus is the most innovative crew chief on the circuit, Johnson is one of the best drivers on the track and the equipment is second to none. If Johnson is challenged, it will most likely be by any one of his superstar teammates.

Still, with the Chase being what it is, he will still need some good luck. This team has a knack for flipping a switch when the postseason starts – but there will always be Talladega and Martinsville, always unpredictable. And with Fontana added to the Chase, weepers could suddenly make a difference.

My money is on someone finally knocking down the No. 48… like the New Man in Black in the No. 24.

S.D. Grady, Newsletter Contributor & Fan Columnist: (Tuesdays/Fan’s View)

As I didn’t think it was possible for three in a row, my doubt factor for four is extremely high. Which means, there’s a good probability of it happening. How? I haven’t the foggiest. But I’ll enjoy watching the No. 48 team make all the right moves all over again.

Phil Allaway, Website Contributor: (Tuesdays/Talking NASCAR TV)

Essentially, all Johnson needs to do is keep up his form from last season. The team needs to continue to put themselves in position to win week in and week out – and get lucky. Some conspiracy theorists have claimed that NASCAR will do anything in their power to make sure that Johnson will not win the championship this year; but I don’t believe that it’s true. And if he has another season like 2008, the No. 48 will be very tough to beat.

Doug Turnbull, Website Contributor: (Tuesdays/Who’s Hot & Who’s Not)

It is very possible to win four championships. The big hump the team will have to get over, though, is “The Carl.” Edwards and the No. 99 team won nine races last season, came very close to winning the title, and are poised for a very strong year once again. But if Johnson and crew chief Knaus bring their “A” game to the Chase – like they have almost every year since its inception – they will be close to unstoppable.

John Potts, Website Contributor: (Fridays/Driven To The Past)

It’s possible, but like any streak, it gets harder as it goes along. What they need to do to get over the hump is to keep doing what they’ve been doing and hope nobody catches up. Sure, everything is “shared” at Hendrick, but the No. 48 team obviously has something nobody else is getting or can achieve quite yet. Maybe it’s just the Knaus/Johnson combination.

Mike Ravesi, Website Contributor: (Mondays/Bubble Breakdown)

With three straight championships in hand, I’d say Johnson is over the hump – and it’s up to everybody else to catch him. If anybody’s gonna do it, it’s Edwards… but I personally don’t think he will. Perhaps if Jack Roush stops lobbying for keeping his fifth team or waging a personal war with Toyota – focusing his efforts on the track instead – then maybe he’s got a chance. But the more likely scenario finds Johnson clinching title No. 4 this year before the final race in Homestead.

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Bryan Davis Keith

With all the juggling and car changing, team changing going on, a stable team like the 48 should actually have a bigger advantage this year than last. Less “true’ competition is what I see for the #48 team.

As far as testing, the #48 team will continue testing, (as allowed by NA$CRAP), and also remember the Hendrick camp has the most “equipment” (and money) to test their cars in their garages! Without even hitting a race track!

Bryan Davis Keith

“However, the new Ford engine — which will allow the Fords to make more downforce than Johnson’s Chevrolets” comment from Amy has me a bit puzzled, the engine might help the Fords by having a bit more HP but with the COT template body I don’t see it adding down downforce unless Ford had something that like Jim Hall did with the CamAM cars and make it a suction engine as well. I don’t see any reason that JJ can’t repeat for a forth time since the team is stable, Carl and Kyle have been inconsistent from year to year.

Bryan Davis Keith

There are drivers/teams that can beat Johnson/Knaus. They’ll have to learn how to “play The Chase”, something Johnson/Knaus have mastered.

Bryan Davis Keith

Shane I think you hit the nail on the head. Edwards was real close last year. If it wasn’t for his actions (stupidity) at Talledega he might have put himself in posistion to win the championship. He also got lucky on his bonsai move at Kansas that he was able to come off the wall and keep going. So I think we’ll see a tighter race between Edwards and Johnson.

Bryan Davis Keith

Yet more misconceptions, quote from the editor’s lead-in: “Let the 2009 racing season begin!!!

I hope your not referring to NA$CRAP when you say “racing”!

Hasn’t been any “racing” in NA$CRAP for a few years yet!

Staged theatrical events, but definitely not racing!

Racing is where the fastest cars get to compete, and where the rules, whatever they may be, apply to EVERYONE!

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