Johnson has Petty, Earnhardt, in his sights
From Five-Time, to Six-Pack, to ... best ever? It might be a bit early for that, but there’s no question that Jimmie Johnson belongs in the conversation. His 2013 championship gives him six and places the California native just one short of the Cup Series record, held by two of the sport’s immortals, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Sixty-six career wins are good for eighth all-time, and at age 38, he’s left that total plenty of room to grow. Teammate and mentor Jeff Gordon, who is third on that list with 88, said recently that he has no doubt Johnson will eventually eclipse his total.
Johnson, despite a hard battle with Matt Kenseth, made 2013’s title quest look deceptively easy. He won six times last year, including the Daytona 500 and a record-setting eighth career victory at Dover. He failed to finish only one race — due to a blown engine at Michigan in August — and his average finish of 10.7 was the best of any full-time driver on the circuit. The 5.1 average during the Chase was his best since 2007.
So, while Johnson’s No. 1 ranking may seem a bit repetitive, he’s earned it. The professional ease with which he dominates, at times boring NASCAR’s fan base, is what also keeps him a perpetual favorite. On and off the track, Johnson doesn’t “intimidate.” He simply breezes by the competition in the same way a major corporation snuffs out rivals. It’s like Johnson clocks in at 8:00 a.m., makes innocuous small talk, puts his head down and cranks out paperwork in his cubicle and takes the Employee of the Week award home at 5:00 on Friday. Compelling television? Not always — but it’s working.
All kidding aside, Johnson’s skill behind the wheel truly separates him. Smooth and aggressive, he rarely panics or overdrives the car. Some weeks he makes it all look so effortless in the cockpit that viewers must wonder if the equipment is legal.
It is. But Hendrick Motorsports — NASCAR’s version of the New York Yankees — spares no expense in giving Johnson the best. Hendrick cars are fast, but perhaps what sets the team a notch above other elites such as Joe Gibbs Racing is durability. Among the four HMS teams, there were four engine failures in 2013, one for Johnson and three for teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. In fact, if you include the customers at Stewart-Haas and Chip Ganassi Racing (five teams), the number of Hendrick blown motors was only five. The postseason is even better; Johnson has had only one mechanical DNF in the Chase since 2005.
Crew chief Chad Knaus, in his 13th year atop the pit box for the No. 48, also deserves his share of credit. Knaus has a well-deserved reputation as one of the top innovators in the sport, hands down. While that’s gotten him in trouble in the past, he’s walked the straight and narrow in recent years, perfecting the art of pushing the boundaries. Knaus is also a master at handling those around him, motivating Johnson while making the car improve throughout a race. The Johnson-Knaus chemistry, with its marriage-like communication, is simply unmatched.
Financial stability comes with Lowe’s (and subsidiary Kobalt Tools), which has backed Johnson since Day 1 in the Cup Series. The one question Lowe’s execs asked Johnson, back in 2001, was whether he thought he could win. Johnson said yes, backed it up for a dozen years, and made sure that money was the least of his problems.
One more piece to Johnson’s puzzle comes from teammates. In the early years, it was Gordon who helped Johnson learn the ropes, but now it’s Earnhardt who may be the biggest influence. Johnson and Earnhardt have similar preferences, and Earnhardt has shown that he’s a serious competitor of late, which gives Johnson both information and motivation. Hendrick’s “coopetition” produces results: In 2013, it got all four drivers in the Chase.
The pieces remain in place for Johnson to make a seventh title bid in 2014. Of course, a wacky new Chase format threatens to transform the championship from strategy-based precision to fluky crapshoot. Still, if you had to put money on any one team, this would be the one. He has fast cars, a well-managed team and unquestionable talent. He’s not invincible; pit road personnel shuffles, along with trouble managing double-file restarts, can be Kryptonite. Other teams have caught up a bit with strategy, and Knaus occasionally will get burned. And don’t be concerned about the tweaks to NASCAR’s Gen-6 — changes keep Knaus drooling, working 24/7 to burn up the competition on setups and stay 10 steps ahead at the start.
If the team can do that, Johnson has a shot at joining Petty and Earnhardt in immortality — one step away from creating a level all his own.
What the Competition is SayingAnonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
There’s not a lot competitors can say about Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team that hasn’t already been said.
“He’s a six-time champion,” says one rival crew chief. “He proved more than once last year that he could beat superior cars just because of his driving ability; Chad Knaus is the best in the business; and the Chase is made up of tracks where Johnson shines. Now he has the goal of tying history and has always done well when goals were within reach. And did I mention Chad Knaus? Also, being in the first garage stall gives his team a feeling of confidence that shows up on the track — there’s a mental edge there.”
“There’s nothing negative to say,” a competitor says, shaking his head. “Except that he didn’t win the title in 2010 or 2011. Going forward, there will be intense pressure from fans and media as he tries to tie (Richard) Petty and (Dale) Earnhardt with seven titles.”
One media member asks: “The best ever? It’s impossible to accurately compare drivers of different eras, but the case can certainly be made. I hope that after last year’s performance fans will realize that Johnson isn’t just some creation of Rick Hendrick’s money and Chad Knaus’ know-how. He is, without question, the best driver out there.”
Looking at Checkers: Honestly, would it surprise you if he were to win at any track on any given weekend?
Pretty Solid Pick: The Martinsville tallies — with six wins and 12 top 10s in 14 CoT/Gen-6 era races — are just astounding.
Good Sleeper Pick: Sleeper? Please. Well OK, maybe at Watkins Glen.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: J.J. is winless at only five Cup tracks: Chicagoland, Homestead, Kentucky, Michigan and the Glen — though that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s out to lunch.
Insider Tip: He’ll break the Michigan and Chicago jinxes soon enough, Kentucky’s sample size is still miniscule, and he’s points racing at Homestead. The roadies are an issue (relatively speaking), but the truth is that there are few, if any, chinks in the armor. This is hands-down the best team in the sport.
No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Sponsor: Lowe’s/Kobalt Tools
Owner: Rick Hendrick/Jeff Gordon
Crew Chief: Chad Knaus
Years with current team: 13
Under contract through: 2015
Best points finish: 1st (2006, ’07, ’08, ’09, ’10, ’13)
Hometown: El Cajon, Calif.
Born: Sept. 17, 1975
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro