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Previews, predictions and stats for Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team
“The Jimmie Johnson Era.” Many fans might hate it, but that’s likely how the past decade of Sprint Cup competition will be remembered, as Johnson has made the series his personal playground since he sat on the front row of the Daytona 500 as a rookie 11 years ago. Despite two straight seasons in which he and his team have underperformed (by their standards), many in the sport believe the road to the Cup title still goes through his No. 48 car’s garage stall.
Why? Just look at the numbers: 60 wins, 29 poles, 248 top 10s in 399 starts. Johnson has never won fewer than two races in any full Cup season and never finished lower than sixth in driver points. Love him or loathe him, Johnson has dominated the series for nearly his entire career.
Part of that equation is the race car he’s given at Hendrick Motorsports. There’s a reason the organization is highly regarded in the garage area; typically its equipment is second to none. But while mechanical failures are a rarity, Johnson had a return to reality in that department in 2012. While each team within HMS averaged fewer than two failures, the five-time champ experienced three, including a burnt-up rear end gear at the season finale — a loss that sealed his title fate. But in a sign of how bulletproof his team has been, it was the first mechanical DNF in the Chase for Johnson since Talladega in 2004.
Take that away, along with 2012’s ’Dega engine mishap, and Johnson would have been holding the trophy. That’s important, because after two seasons without a championship, the way this team approaches its preparation and strategy will make the difference in 2013. One would argue against too much change. Owner Rick Hendrick remains successful by keeping a core group intact and plugging in the right holes with the right pieces. Why blow it all up after this seven-year run?
Another integral part of Johnson’s team is crew chief Chad Knaus. Considered by many to be the best in the garage, Knaus has been able to find every ounce of speed in a race car. That’s gotten him in trouble with NASCAR, but it’s also gotten results. Johnson’s strength, which his head wrench brings out, is communicating what his car is doing and how they are doing in comparison to earlier laps and earlier races. A lesser-known but equally important part of Johnson’s success is car chief Ron Malec, who brings the car to the track as close to race-ready as any in the garage. Malec has been with Johnson since he was racing in ASA in the late 1990s, and he knows what his driver needs in a race car without having to ask. Chances are that with the new 2013 body style they’ll come out of the gate stronger than almost any other group on the circuit. Having teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the same shop has been a benefit to Johnson as well. They’ve worked together very well over the last two seasons, a refreshing change from the competitive tension of former shopmate Jeff Gordon.
Sponsor Lowe’s and its house brand Kobalt Tools have been with Johnson since he came on the Cup scene in 2001 as a relative unknown. It’s rare for one company to sponsor a full season these days — and for this amount of time — but the relationship has certainly paid off for the home improvement company in advertising. Lowe’s is signed through 2013, giving the team security, although in today’s economic environment, it’s really no surprise when a company cuts back on its financial commitments, regardless of how successful the relationship might have been.
So, are there holes? Yes. The one area where Johnson hasn’t been the class of the field in the last two years is on pit road; Homestead, prior to the gear failure, was already lost through a pit road penalty. The season was a big improvement over 2011, but Johnson doesn’t hold the advantage he once did in the pits.
Also worth keeping an eye on are fuel mileage races. Johnson is the first to admit that “going slow to go fast” is not his strong point. That’s in stark contrast to his new chief rival, Brad Keselowski, who used fuel mileage (and strategy on pit road) to snooker the five-time champs on more than one occasion in 2012.
What hasn’t changed is Johnson’s talent and the respect he receives from other drivers. Though his detractors are quick to credit Knaus, Hendrick equipment, or other factors for the driver’s success, the fact is that he’s the one driving the car. A smooth and careful pilot who races others hard but clean, Johnson annually makes himself the favorite. Don’t expect that to change in 2013.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, competitors and media
There’s not much to say about the five-time champion that hasn’t been said already. Obviously, Jimmie Johnson and his team set the bar.
A rival crew chief says: “Johnson is very good — his team, Hendrick Motorsports, (and) their approach. And he’s the class act of NASCAR in the Cup Series these days. I have a lot of respect for him. Everyone does.”
While the No. 48 team has come up short the last two seasons, one insider believes Johnson and his team are still the group with the target on their back:
“The guys in the Cup Series will have a hard time beating him year in and year out. Brad (Keselowski) may have beaten him last year, but he’s going to be there every year and probably win more than he loses.”
One media member notes the professionalism and quiet determination with which the team and its driver go about their business through a grueling 36-race schedule:
“They’re like clockwork: Start strong and secure a Chase spot, test in the summer and grab that extra gear at Chase time. It’s amazing really, because everyone knows their game, but no other team can beat them at it.”
Looking at Checkers: Most anywhere, but with seven wins at both tracks, Dover and Martinsville are the stalwarts.
Pretty Solid Pick: Prior to November’s blown tire, he had finished in the top 15 in all 18 of his Cup starts at Phoenix.
Good Sleeper Pick: Uhh, OK ...
Runs on Seven Cylinders: J.J. owns a top-5 finish on all 23 Sprint Cup tracks (and even has one at Rockingham). The only exotic locales where he has yet to claim a trophy: Brooklyn, Homestead, Joliet, Sparta and Watkins Glen.
Insider Tip: Averages roughly 5.5 wins per year. His two-win 2011 anomaly brought that number down. With apologies to the defending series champion, this is the best overall team on the circuit, bar none.
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