Jimmie Johnson goes to new depths to recover championship form
By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.—Jimmie Johnson found out the hard way that sometimes it pays to fix what isn’t broken—or at least to try.
It took losing a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship for the first time in six seasons for Johnson to learn that lesson.
“I didn’t realize over the five years or six years that we didn’t change maybe as much as we needed to, and evolve,” Johnson said Thursday, opening the annual NASCAR Media Day at Daytona International Speedway with a post-mortem of the 2011 season.
While Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus were winning their record five championships, the rest of the Cup garage caught up with what they were doing.
“It’s tough to leave a successful road map, and Chad and myself and the team have been very good at trying to reinvent ourselves each year,” Johnson said. “But until the streak was broken—now looking back this offseason at what we’ve been through and trying to rebuild the team and make sure we’re looking at everything we can—we’ve gone to different depths, different levels of focusing on my interaction with the team, how I provide information to the team, what information I’m looking at.
“There’s a lot of things that I haven’t done in the past, and I felt like I was one of the most in-depth drivers out there. I’m trying to even take that steps further now. Because of the loss, we’ve been able to dig deeper and look and get away from the road map that we’ve built and challenge ourselves more.”
The need to deepen his skill set as a driver wasn’t the only thing Johnson realized after the fact. Not until he was eliminated officially from title contention at the next-to-last race of the season at Phoenix did Johnson realize how much pressure the run for a sixth title had placed on his shoulders.
The 2011 season brought more sniping on the radio between Johnson and Knaus than fans were used to hearing from the No. 48 team, but Johnson views that more as an effect than a cause of the problems that beset the team late in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
“I think a lot of it was due to trying to keep the streak alive and other pressures we didn’t recognize until the championship was gone,” Johnson said. “Those pressures had ratcheted things up, and they started to affect the decision-making process.
“You need to be able to vent. You need to be able to blow some steam off, put someone in place, if need be, yell at your crew chief, if need be—they yell at drivers all the time. That stuff needs to happen, but in the end, it wasn’t necessarily what was coming out of our mouths. A lot of factors affected the decision-making process.”
During the offseason, Johnson needed time to disconnect from the sport. He didn’t race in the Grand-Am Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona as he has in the past. Basically, Johnson was a homebody through the holidays.
In January, however, he refocused his attention on racing to an even greater degree than he has in the past.
“I didn’t even go to the Super Bowl this year,” Johnson said. “I wanted to be home and just enjoy time with my family and just do things that I wanted to do, get stuff done around the house. It sounds kind of hilarious, but there are a lot of things we ignore through the course of the year, especially over the last six years, with what I’ve been through.
“It was nice to catch up and scratch things off the list from my own personal things, my honey-do list, and also to get closer to racing once we got through the holidays, circling back with Chad and the team, understanding the dynamic at the shop, really evaluating what we did in ‘11 and how we feel we can do a better job.
“So the real work on ‘12 started after Jan. 1. I just separated myself. I was nice to just get away, have weekends off, have a normal life, visit with friends and all that. And since New Year’s we’ve been really focused on coming back for ‘12.”
Johnson’s primary regret from last season was not losing the title, but the way he lost it. Racing hard against Ryan Newman in the Chase race at Charlotte, he lost control of the No. 48 Chevy and crashed. A week later, in the sixth Chase race at Talladega, he and drafting partner Dale Earnhardt Jr. raced at the back of the field but failed to launch at the end of the race.
Though he wasn’t eliminated mathematically until Phoenix, for practical purposes, Johnson’s championship run was over at Talladega.
“I’m just upset at the way we lost the championship last year,” he acknowledged. “At points within the Chase, we had momentum, and things going our way. When I look back on it, I find that the way in which we lost is the tough thing. I don’t want to do that again. If we get beat, we get beat. I just don’t want to . . . we beat ourselves. And I don’t want to do that again.”
Most reporters don’t think he will. In a recent NASCAR media poll, Johnson was voted the favorite to win the 2012 championship.
“I’m stoked to be selected,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t, unfortunately, get me the championship. I’ve still got to go out and earn that. Everybody that covers our sport knows the sport well, and I think they know the 48 well.
“We’re highly motivated to get it done in 2012. Now we’ve got to get out there and get to work.”