NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2010 NASCAR Driver Review: Jimmie Johnson

Jimmie Johnson

2010 Ride: No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
2010 Primary Sponsor: Lowe’s/Kobalt Tools
2010 Owners: Rick Hendrick, Jeff Gordon
2010 Crew Chief: Chad Knaus
2010 Stats: 36 starts, 6 wins, 17 top fives, 23 top 10s, 2 poles, Sprint Cup champion (fifth consecutive time)

High Point: Homestead. Johnson had to do what many fans figured impossible to win his fifth straight title – lead laps and run up front at Homestead-Miami Speedway, one of a small handful of tracks where Johnson has not won or even run particularly well. While winning his previous four titles, Johnson came to Homestead with the points lead, knowing exactly what he needed to do to maintain and win.

This year, that was blown out of the water as Johnson came in trailing points leader Denny Hamlin and needed to beat Hamlin – last year’s Homestead winner – by a healthy margin to win the title. And he did it, finishing second while Hamlin fell apart. This one was a different kind of championship for Johnson, and perhaps his most satisfying.

Instead of coasting home to win the title, Johnson simply went out and took it, in the process moving into sole possession of third on the all-time title list and opening the floor for talk of tying or breaking the all-time mark of seven, considered hallowed ground in NASCAR and leaving no doubt that fans are seeing one of the greatest drivers the sport has ever known.

Low Point: Texas. On the surface, Johnson’s run in the Texas Chase race wasn’t bad. He finished ninth, after all. But as Johnson was taking the top 10, Denny Hamlin was winning the race – and taking the point lead in the process. That left Johnson in unfamiliar territory this late in the Chase and meant facing one hard truth: his pit crew, some members of which had been there for four championships, wasn’t getting it done.

Make no mistake, it wasn’t just Texas; Johnson’s pit stops had been subpar for most of the season, and he often had to make up on track positions the crew cost him on pit road. But it came to a head at Texas, to the point crew chief Chad Knaus made a controversial call, using the over-the-wall crew of Jeff Gordon, who had crashed out earlier, on the final stop. It was by far the best one the day, but it left a bad taste in the mouths of some fans and media who felt that it would have been better to lose as a team than to win this way.

Summary: Johnson made his pitch for inclusion among the elite drivers of all time in 2010. He took his milestone 50th win at Bristol, a track where he’d struggled in the past. His 53 career wins rank second among active drivers and 10th all-time. Barring a colossal meltdown, he’ll pass both Lee Petty and Rusty Wallace in career wins next year. He took a fifth championship and he did it much sooner in his career than either Dale Earnhardt or Richard Petty got their fifth.

And yet, it wasn’t a great year by Johnson’s standards.

It started off in typical Johnson fashion. After finishing 35th at Daytona with a broken axle, Johnson grabbed wins in the next two races and had three wins and seven top 10s in the first dozen. But from Talladega in the spring to the summer race at Daytona, there were chinks in the armor: four finishes of 31st or worse and three DNFs due to crashes.

Johnson typically hits a summer slump, and this year’s was bad. After winning at Loudon in June, Johnson finished 31st at Daytona and then managed just one top 10 (Pocono) through the end of August to go with four more finishes outside the top 20. Johnson recovered with two third-place runs at Atlanta and Richmond, but limped into the Chase. He would take the points lead for a while, as was expected, but it was apparent that something was missing, and the points lead went away at Texas amid some bragging by Hamlin that this year would be different.

The crew swap at Texas gave Johnson one last chance at a title run, though, and from there the driver took matters into his own hands. He cut Hamlin’s lead to 15 at Phoenix and went to Homestead on a mission: to become the first Chase champion to come from behind to take the Cup home. Johnson found something in his racecar and in himself that day and, in the process, reminded the competition why he’s the best Chase driver in its seven-year history. Mission accomplished.

Team Ranking: First. This year, there was no doubt where Johnson ranked at Hendrick Motorsports. He was the only Hendrick driver to win (six times) and teammate Gordon was eliminated from championship contention at Phoenix while Johnson went on to win.

2011 Outlook: Seriously? Three straight titles had only been accomplished once before Johnson tied his childhood hero Cale Yarborough for that in 2008. Four straight seemed like a near impossibility. Five in a row? That was downright ludicrous – that’s New York Yankees/Boston Celtics domination, and NASCAR isn’t like the stick-and-ball sports, right? Six in a row? Insane? It’s been done in NASCAR, actually, by Richie Evans, who won seven in a row in the Modified division, but that was a long time ago and not in today’s ultra-competitive Cup division.

But to end Johnson’s streak, someone has to step up and beat him – he isn’t going to lay down, as he proved in the last two races of 2010. So far, nobody has been up to the challenge when it really counts – which means when the dust clears, don’t be surprised if it turns out to be same you-know-what, different year for Johnson.

2006 Frontstretch Grade: A+
2007 Grade: A+
2008 Grade: A+
2009 Grade: A+
2010 Grade: A+

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