Jimmie Johnson is no longer NASCAR's defending Cup champion. … but does that help him or hurt him in 2012?
Jimmie Johnson is in a unique position heading into the 2012 season, one he hasn’t been in since 2006.
He is not champion.
If that seems like forever ago, it’s because it is.
No one has a reign like that in modern-day sports, which is what makes it so stunning.
But today is a new day … or rather, a new year.
Johnson is now just another competitor, not the defending champion. And the way I see it, that could work two ways for him.
One, it could be a positive motivating factor, as he and his team will do everything in their power to get back to the top of the heap. This is the most likely effect of Jimmie not being champ.
But it could work against him too. In his effort to get back up top, he could reach too far, take too many chances, and end up with some cars that just don’t match up to the field. Not likely, of course, as the 48 team does its homework every week, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility; as it has happened before even with great teams.
In a time when you would think he would work overtime getting cars ready, crew chief Chad Knaus didn’t show up to testing and was enjoying personal time.
Johnson said that it wouldn’t affect the team’s progress.
“He's been texting and emailing, so there still is that communication taking place. But we've got a very confident race team, and everybody is following the test plan, and we're going through the motions. Truthfully a lot of the work for this test was done at the shop getting prepared, and now we're just following a test plan. It's worked out well for Chad to take some time for himself, and I'm really happy that he has decided to do this. As we all know, he doesn't give himself much personal time.”
Oddly enough, 2006 was also the year that Jimmie won the Daytona 500. And he’d love to do it again this season.
“It's such a special race, and I feel very fortunate to have won that race. At that point I didn't have a championship, and it's one of two races that you get a title when you win this race, this one and the Brickyard. It can make a career, and it was a huge, huge thing for myself when I won it in 2006.”
With his new situation, Jimmie said he is trying to look at the way he operates from new angles.
“I've spent a lot of time through the offseason thinking about the way I'm involved with the race team, the responsibilities I have,” he said. “It's been a very good off season for me to internalize some things and to really evaluate what goes on from my standpoint and my involvement with the team and how good of a teammate and team member I can be for the 48 car, and I'm making changes. I feel like even though I tried to over the five year run not stall out and tried to continue to evolve and challenge myself and recreate myself. It's hard to do it. You have a roadmap that's working and it's hard to get too far from it. This winter has been really good for me to really dive down and understand the areas where I feel like I can do a better job and be a better member of the 48 team. So I know I'm stronger and better today than I was leaving Homestead, so I'm looking forward to 2012.”
That sounds like a confident Jimmie, something the competitors probably don’t want to see, but it’s all about what happens on that track. As with every year, some drivers will take a step up (as, for example, Brad Keselowski did in 2011), and some drivers will take a step down (like Jimmie did in 2011.)
Which way will Jimmie’s elevator go in 2012? Stay tuned starting next month and we’ll see.
Honestly, you can’t pick against him doing well and making the Chase. That’s pretty much a given, and he will win races here and there – he is Jimmie Johnson after all.
The key question becomes: Once in the Chase, can he reclaim that killer ability he had for so many years to come up big when it counted, or will he struggle again and let others (like Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart did in 2011) be the ones to catch fire?
The answer to that will be determined throughout the season – If Chad and Jimmie are clicking and he is showing that he can run with the best of him – watch out, as he might be aiming at title no. 6 with a realistic shot to win.
But if they struggle this season – who knows? Maybe the Jimmie Johnson era will be put even further into the past.