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2011 NASCAR Preview: The Top 30 Driver Countdown
2011 Driver Countdown
No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
Owner: Rick Hendrick/Jeff Gordon
Crew Chief: Chad Knaus
Years with current team: 10
Under contract through: 2015
Best points finish: 1st (2006, ’07, ’08, ’09, ’10)
Hometown: El Cajon, Calif.
Born: September 17, 1975
In 2007, Jimmie Johnson won his second straight championship, and while it raised a few eyebrows, most figured three in a row wasn’t realistic — it hadn’t happened in 30 years, after all. Once it did, a four-peat seemed a virtual impossibility. Nobody had done that in 60 years of NASCAR’s existence — until 2009, when the No. 48 made former record-holder Cale Yarborough seem ordinary. But going for five? Making history again? You’d have a better chance of hitting Lucky 7s for $1 million on the Vegas slots than to see that mix of luck, talent and longevity.
But Johnson, as it turns out, is a one-in-a-million type of guy. Earning a fifth title in spectacular fashion, he’s now third on the all-time list.
As his racing dynasty continues, Johnson has become one of the most polarizing drivers in NASCAR fandom. To those who like him, he’s the best driver to come down the pike since Jeff Gordon took the sport by storm in the 1990s. To those who don’t, Johnson is a little too lucky and has a genius for a crew chief. Either way, his numbers suggest that he’s already earned a place among the elite, and he’s not done yet. Talk of seven titles is legitimate now, and a sixth seems like less of a stretch than the third, fourth or fifth.
Why? For all intents and purposes, the No. 48 actually had an “off” year despite six victories in 2010. Johnson didn’t coast home with the championship last year, he went out and took it, scratching for every point. If it was Denny Hamlin’s title to lose; Johnson needed mental savvy to snatch it, succeeding so smoothly and seemingly effortlessly that, in retrospect, his rival didn’t stand a chance. To see him fight back was devastating for Johnson’s challengers, just as much as it instilled confidence in him. If J.J. can hold the title on a “bad year,” what happens when his team actually ups the ante again?
“We had to really buckle down to get this thing done,” admitted crew chief Chad Knaus just two hours after the title-clinching performance at Homestead. “I’ve got some hard discussions to have with Jimmie about some testing that he’s going to have to take part in (this offseason).”
That makeover begins with the men going over the wall. Hendrick Motorsports held pit crew tryouts over the offseason to replace several members on a team that looked like the Three Stooges on occasion, not reigning champions — so much so that they were swapped out with Jeff Gordon’s team during the seventh race of the Chase. The replacements did an admirable job, but hurt feelings and awkward moments have placed three new crewmen on the squad, joining three holdovers.
That constant push to excel comes from the best crew chief in the garage in Knaus, who possesses a rare combination of technical genius and people skills to know exactly what his driver needs in the racecar and exactly what he needs to hear. And don’t discount car chief Ron Malec, charged with preparing the racecars. Malec has been with Johnson since his ASA days in the mid-1990s and knows what Johnson needs without asking. They’re the perfect 1-2 mechanical punch for a team that overcomes adversity like no other.
Johnson is a bulldog on the track: He fights tirelessly and never, ever loses his hold on victory once it’s in his grasp. But he’s also a thoroughbred, managing risk while making it all look as if he’s not working. That ability to go out and dominate without ruffling feathers is the biggest key to his success, the reason that he can never be overlooked as a title favorite.
Johnson will have a new shopmate in Dale Earnhardt Jr., and believe it or not, the struggling newcomer could actually help him. The two favor fairly similar handling on a car, and Earnhardt could offer some insight on restrictor plate racing, long Johnson’s Achilles heel.
Six titles in a row used to sound ridiculous — like a Days of Thunder-esque theatrical fantasy whose script has no basis in reality. But after what Johnson accomplished in 2010, and after the way he accomplished it, someone should just hand him the pen: He’s writing that script with every race.
What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.
The grandstands aren’t the only place where Jimmie Johnson Fatigue thrives. “I don’t know how you beat the guy,” says another crew chief in the 2010 Chase. “Every single year, Johnson and his team perform better in the Chase than the rest of the year, and it’s all the rest of us can do to just do our best all the time. Just when you think you can beat him, he picks up the pace like he had it in reserve all along.”
Another says, “Oh, there’s always hope. Denny (Hamlin) and Kevin (Harvick) gave him all he could stand.”
A third crew chief adds, “(Crew chief) Chad Knaus is a perfectionist, and ruthless as hell. I don’t think a lot of drivers would last 15 minutes with him.”
Yet another says, “Johnson’s talent is his ability to process things and react. All race drivers have to possess that knack for wide-open, high-speed decision-making, and he’s just, quite literally, a machine.”
Looking at Checkers: With apologies to Martinsville and Dover, JJ’s at his best in Phoenix.
Pretty Solid Pick: That said, Martinsville and Dover.
Good Sleeper Pick: A team that’s won five consecutive series titles never enters a weekend as a sleeper.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: He’s won one race at both Daytona and Talladega, but tends to blend in more often than not.
Insider Tip: Has averaged nearly six wins per year in his nine full seasons on circuit. Best team, bar none.
Top 5s: 17
Top 10s: 23
Laps Led: 1,315
Laps Completed: 10,418
Lead Lap Finishes: 27
Bonus Points: 155
Races Led: 24
Average Start: 9.4
Average Finish: 12.2
After First 26 Races: 2nd
Final Points Standing: 1st
Driver Rating: 107.7 (1st)