NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2011 NASCAR Driver Review: Jimmie Johnson

Jimmie Johnson

2011 Ride: No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
2011 Primary Sponsors: Lowe’s/Kobalt Tools, Jimmie Johnson Foundation
2011 Owners: Rick Hendrick, Jeff Gordon
2011 Crew Chief: Chad Knaus
2011 Stats: 36 starts, 2 wins, 14 top fives, 21 top 10s, 2 DNFs, sixth in points

High Point: Kansas in October. For the first time in 2011, Johnson and Co. looked like the No. 48 team of old, dominating the race from start to finish. After a slow start to the Chase, it looked as though the team might turn it around and contend for title number six. Johnson made the race look easy; the car was right, the driver was right, the team didn’t lose spots on pit road. It looked like the ignition for another takeoff to the top of the board. Unfortunately, the winning feeling lasted just a week, until…

Low Point: Charlotte in October. After a slow start to the Chase, Johnson rolled into Charlotte, a track that he calls “my house,” on the wave of a win at Kansas and back in contention for a sixth title. After Charlotte, he would not contend again. Throughout the race, Johnson and Chad Knaus just could not hit on the right setup for the No. 48. Though they were able to run with the leaders at times, they weren’t consistently in the hunt for the win.

The pit stops, an issue all year, weren’t there either, and that left Johnson in a position where he had to take risks to get to the front. Unfortunately, late in the race, one of those risks proved too costly, as Johnson got loose trying to pass Ryan Newman and, in an effort to stay off Newman, pounded the outside wall in one of the hardest hits of his career. After that night, the team never could recover and was not a factor in the championship race.

Summary: There are a lot of drivers who would be happy with Johnson’s 2011 numbers, but for Johnson, they spelled the worst season of his career. His two wins were the fewest he’s ever had in a single season, and he hasn’t brought home fewer top 10s since 2003. His sixth-place points finish is also a career low. And the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Johnson was never a true title contender. After some slow pit work late in 2010, Chad Knaus held open tryouts for the pit crew, and even after he had hired several crewmen, held continued tryouts each week for the right to go over the wall.

As a result, the pit work looked more like that of a mid-pack team than the defending series champions. By midseason, the strain was evident in the team’s communications, with Johnson often pleading with his crew not to lose any more positions and Knaus even saying on the team radio at Loudon, “This pit crew ****ing sucks!”

Unfortunately, for a championship caliber team, the assessment wasn’t far off.

The year started with a 27th-place run in the Daytona 500. Johnson picked it up in the next few weeks, scoring three top-five finishes leading up to his win at Talladega. Still, there could have been more wins, perhaps, if not for the performance on pit road. Through May, though, it looked as though Johnson was still the man to beat if those problems could be solved. An engine failure in the Coca-Cola 600 relegated the team to their first of two DNFs.

It might have been easy to overlook the team’s performance through the summer, as Johnson has nearly always had a midsummer slump as Knaus prepares for the Chase run to come, but a look below the surface showed the team’s issues to run deep. Week after week, Johnson lost positions on pit road, and while he usually made them up on the racetrack, he wasn’t able to completely overcome them. Knaus selected a permanent pit crew by late summer, but the damage was done.

The Chase began without the usual surge from Johnson. The driver with a record 20 Chase race wins drove as hard as ever, but it wasn’t enough as the team stumbled through the Chase. The pit mistakes were, for the most part, corrected, but Johnson rarely gained spots in the pits. Knaus made conservative calls, and while that worked in other years, it cost Johnson this time around. His Charlotte crash sealed Johnson’s fate, but he was an underdog from the start this year, not the heavy favorite. In the end, Johnson had an enviable season for anyone else, but a barely average one for the winningest driver of the last decade.

2011 Team Ranking: First. Johnson was once again top dog at Hendrick Motorsports by virtue of his sixth-place points ranking, but only by a slim margin; Jeff Gordon led all HMS teams with three wins on the year, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. was just 14 points behind Johnson in the standings.

2012 Outlook: Johnson is one of the finest stock car drivers of his era and probably of all time. Even his 2011 season doesn’t change that. However, NASCAR is a team sport, and you have to wonder if Johnson’s team is stagnating. Part of the pit crew problem is poaching; many of Johnson’s best crewman from his first four titles were lured away by the deep pockets of rival teams.

But that’s not the whole problem. Strategy was lacking in 2011, and that will need to be addressed, while the No. 48 as a team will need to work hard to catch up with the teams that surpassed them. If the team takes the 2011 season as a personal challenge to get better, they could come back with a vengeance. And if anyone can do that and come out on top, it’s Johnson. It won’t be easy, but Johnson has made the impossible possible before.

2006 Frontstretch Grade: A+
2007 Grade: A+
2008 Grade: A+
2009 Grade: A+
2010 Grade: A+
2011 Grade: C

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