Preseason Rank: 4
It took the end of Jimmie Johnson’s five-year championship reign for many to understand its real significance to the sport. It cemented Johnson as perhaps the greatest driver of his era and one of the greatest of all time with a run that almost certainly will not be repeated. But now that it’s over, can Johnson return to the top after coming off what was, for him, a lackluster 2011?
It all depends on the answers to some key questions. The biggest, as 2012 looms, is how longtime head wrench Chad Knaus manages a revamped pit crew. Not only was the No. 48 crew unable to keep up with other teams on pit road in 2011, but its work also ended up costing Johnson races. Stop after stop, Johnson found himself using up his fresh tires trying to gain back positions lost in the pits instead of moving forward in the field. That can’t happen again if Johnson is going to contend for a sixth title.
Question No. 2 is whether Hendrick Motorsports has lost a step to the competition. It certainly appears that the answer to that is “no,” although the field was more equal as a whole in 2011. A Hendrick chassis and engine won the championship, although a Hendrick driver didn’t. The team’s equipment remains among the best, if not the best, in the Sprint Cup Series and its in-house engines stack up with anyone’s. What may have changed, however, is the innovation that Johnson once counted on during races. Through his five titles, one key factor was the ability of Johnson, Knaus, and car chief Ron Malec to make the right adjustments on the fly, overcoming even the most temperamental racecar to win with mechanical precision. That didn’t happen last year.
There were many times that Johnson would report over the radio his frustration with the team’s inability to improve a handling issue or find speed; in response, the team failed to create a miracle every time the chips were down. Strategies that had once worked to frustrate the competition no longer gave Johnson an edge, and the conservative approach to races wasn’t enough to win in a season dominated by track position. Especially in the Chase, Knaus’ decisions to leave Johnson back in traffic with fresh rubber often backfired, as dirty air and lackluster handling left the No. 48 trapped midpack. That “magic touch” of making the right choices has to return before Johnson can be considered a title favorite.
While rumors of a change in team leadership swirled briefly late in 2011, they were quickly put to rest. The core of Johnson’s team — Knaus and Malec — are back this year. Together, those mechanical masters still have five titles on their résumé. Johnson, as expected, gave Knaus a vote of confidence even as it became clear that they would not win the title in 2011, saying that he wanted no one else on the pit box come Daytona. The two have the longest-running driver/crew chief combination in the garage, and while there are rocky moments, no team can equal the level of communication that Johnson and Knaus share on race weekend.
One thing not in question is Johnson’s driving ability. An expert with controlled aggression, he rarely loses his temper in the car and is highly respected by his peers. J.J. races others the way they race him, and that goes a long way on the track. His smooth style means that he can run almost any groove as it suits him, and he can adapt to changes throughout a race.
Finally, his ability to communicate exactly what the car is doing is second to none. Johnson remembers everything about a racetrack — how the car handled at any given point, the few inches of change in line that improved speed, the changes that worked (or didn’t) the last visit. He thinks about every lap of every race before he ever climbs into the car.
The question now: How will Johnson handle entering 2012 as a championship underdog? Goliath isn’t used to playing the role of David. But remember that the tweaks needed here for recovery are minor, not major. If done right, the Lowe’s Chevrolet could be frustrating the competition all the way to Homestead once again.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chief, owners, media members and fellow drivers
The five-time champion had an uncharacteristic year in 2011, missing out on his sixth straight title after his worst Chase performance to date.
“So what, they didn’t win the sixth, but they waxed everyone’s asses winning five,” one insider says. “He is one of the top three most talented drivers in NASCAR — and him winning the Prelude to the Dream two years ago only proved it.”
Despite his historic run as a five-time consecutive champion, Johnson is still underappreciated by many. “I’m not sure he’ll ever get his due for winning five in a row as long as he’s with (crew chief Chad) Knaus,” another insider says. “People consider Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch to be more purely talented than Johnson.”
“Losing one may only motivate Knaus more — if that’s possible,” a media member says. “If anyone thinks the ‘Jimmie Johnson Era’ is over, they’re sorely mistaken. They’re contracts run through, what, 2015? They’ve got another couple titles in ’em yet.”
Top 5s: 14
Top 10s: 21
Laps Led: 1,115
Laps Completed: 10,560
Lead Lap Finishes: 29
Bonus Points: 33
Races Led: 23
Average Start: 12.9
Average Finish: 11.9
After First 26 Races: 6th
Final Points Standing: 6th
Driver Rating: 99.1 (3rd)
Visit AthlonSports.com each day throughout the month of February for exclusive preseason coverage of the 2012 NASCAR season.