DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The more things change in NASCAR, the more Jimmie Johnson stays the same.
By RANDY COVITZ
The Kansas City Star
NASCAR can tinker with the Chase for the Sprint Cup format as it has over the years, and it can alter the designs of the race cars from the Car of Tomorrow to the Gen-6.
Johnson still wins championships.
This year, NASCAR will change the 10-race Chase to a 16-driver format that will eliminate four drivers every three weeks until a final four advance to determine the champion in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Johnsons still the one to beat.
The new format is almost custom-made for Johnson to win a seventh Cup championship, which would tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most ever in the series.
Regardless of car or points system, Johnson said, well be a threat. It would be nice to win one, two, or whatever with the new format.
Johnson, the Daytona 500 defending champion, has averaged 5.5 wins per season in his 12 full seasons driving the No. 48 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, and all it will take is one win to qualify for the Chase. No one has been better in the 10 Chase races than Johnson, who has won 24 of the 100 Chase events since its inception in 2004.
If I was able to tie (Petty and Earnhardt) I dont know what it would mean or what that experience would feel like, said Johnson, 38, but to be up there with those two legends would be at the top of the list.
Ive made the Chase every year its been around, so Ive had that opportunity. I take a lot of pride in that. Ive worked so hard and long to get to this point Ive worked a lifetime to get here. Theres more motivation staying on top for those reasons than chasing stats and the historical things that are out there in front of me now. Its really something that comes from within.
Johnsons remarkable run of six championships in the last eight years can be attributed to a car owner, Rick Hendrick, who supplies the team with all the resources it needs; to a crew chief, Chad Knaus, who pushes the technological envelope with those resources; and to Johnsons ability to not only handle a car at speeds of near 200 mph, but outrun drivers in NASCARs most competitive era.
I've worked with a lot of fantastic race car drivers and I've seen a lot of drivers come and go in our sport, said Knaus, who broke into NASCAR as a tire-changer for four-time champion Jeff Gordons original pit crew. I think that Jimmie is, for me, and for our time, the best driver to ever sit in a race car.
Now, does that mean that he could have taken a 1956 Dodge or Plymouth or something like that and beaten Richard Petty? I have no idea. All I can compare it to is the present. All I can compare it to is what we do out there right now and the performance that I see him pull. He's pretty remarkable. I'm very, very fortunate to have a driver of that talent.
Hendrick Motorsports has won 11 of the last 19 Sprint Cup championships (Johnson six, Gordon four and Terry Labonte one), and in Knaus/Johnson, no organization has had such stability with a driver and crew chief since the days of Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Inman.
The chemistry between Chad and Jimmie has been unbelievable, Hendrick said. The preparation with your whole shop the engineers, engine shop, everybody working together
But if you look at Jimmies dedication to perfection, and Chad is the same way it takes a lot of racing luck, but it takes a lot of preparation and talent.
In some ways, Johnson, a low-key Southern Californian, and Knaus, who is from outside Chicago, are a bit of an odd couple.
He's West Coast I'm type A, from the city details, said Knaus, 42, who started with Johnson in 2002. Hes like, Man, things will be okay. The thing that's the best about Jimmie is he always has the positive outlook. How he's able to maintain that is amazing to me. He's definitely rubbed off on me.
When we get into situations where they aren't the most comfortable, things are a little bit stressed, I can look at him, and he has been a mentor for me in understanding there's more to life than just racing. That's pretty cool. I owe a lot of my change in attitude to Jimmie, because he's opened my eyes.
One of the No. 48 teams keys to success is how Knaus and Johnson approach races at tracks that are used both in the regular season and the Chase. There are eight of those tracks in the 10-race Chase, including Kansas Speedway, and Knaus and Johnson use the first visit as a real-time testing session.
We've always felt, especially when the wild-card program came in, if you were to win one or two races you could play for a while, Johnson said. As you get close to September, we always believed you had to fine-tune and be done with major concept changes and really pick your package and refine it.
A year ago, once assured of making the playoff, the 48 team hit a dry patch, finishing 40th, 36th, 28th and 40th in the four races leading into the Chase. But Johnson was back on top of his game once the Chase started, winning the third leg at Dover, the seventh at Texas and finishing outside the top 10 just once in the 10 events.
In the new format, Johnson will have to follow a similar pattern to stay in the Chase through the three eliminations.
I still think the way you win a championship is the same: you've got to win races, Johnson said of the elimination of four drivers every three weeks. I think it builds more excitement with the fact there's that elimination process that works its way down.
When you look at Youve got to win, win in the Chase, that all suits the 48. That's what we've done. The only catch is making sure we're buttoned up in Homestead. The couple of times we've needed to be, we've had the speed and been able to go down there and be competitive.
Even though all Johnson had to do was show up and avoid disaster in the season-ending races at Homestead during his run of five straight championships during 2006-10, he posted four top-10 finishes in those five races, including a fifth in 2009 and second in 2010. A year ago he needed a 23rd-place finish to clinch the championship and came in ninth.
So if Johnson has to pull a 2011 Tony Stewart and win the final race to claim championship No. 7, so be it.
We respond well to pressure, Johnson said. That's one thing that the 48 has done a nice job with. First things first. Weve got to transfer through the different segments, make sure we're not eliminated and have a shot at it.
By winning a seventh Sprint Cup championship in nine years, Johnson just might replace Petty, who needed 16 seasons to win seven titles, and Earnhardt, who needed 15 years, as the best of all time.
I dont think anybody can take those guys place because they were all done in different eras, veteran driver Greg Biffle said. Id say that he stands on that same plateau as them. Petty was first, Earnhardt was the second, and potentially Johnsons the third.
I wouldnt say he takes their place. Id say hes the modern day Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
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