Season Review: Jimmie Johnson
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on December 6, 2013 | 12:00 P.M. EST
Jimmie Johnson had an average finish of 5.1 during the Chase to score his sixth series championship. (Photo: Getty Images)
Think about this: Some NASCAR fans have seen only three drivers win a Sprint Cup championship.
Since 2006 - back when Mark Martin drove for car owner Jack Roush and Tony Stewart was with Joe Gibbs - it’s been the same three guys who won the title: Jimmie Johnson, Stewart and Brad Keselowski.
After failing to win the crown in 2011 and ’12, Johnson rebounded with a dominant Chase this season to score his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship in eight years. He prevailed by withstanding Matt Kenseth’s challenge and pulled away in the final races with a tenacity and talent unmatched by any team.
Johnson won twice during the Chase, a seemingly regular occurrence. Twenty-four of his 66 career Cup victories - 36.4 percent - have come in the Chase. Only once in this Chase did he place outside the top 10, completing the 10-race run with a 5.1 average finish.
That Chase performance was preceded by four-race stretch where Johnson failed to finish better than 28th in the final weeks of the regular season. He ran well during that time but couldn’t get the results, giving the hint that someone else might win this Chase - unless Johnson and his team intensified their efforts in the Chase.
“People think we come into the Chase and rachet it up,’’ crew chief Chad Knaus said. “That's not how we operate. We try to operate at 10/10ths all year long. When we get into the Chase, it's kind of the norm.
“Trust me, that (upsets) Jimmie. Nobody wants to work that hard. I demand that out of him, he demands that out of me.’’
Nobody could match Johnson and Knaus this season.
Kenseth tried. With three races left in the season, he had the same number of points as Johnson. The series headed to Texas. Kenseth had won four times on a 1.5-mile track, while Johnson had yet to win on such a track this season.
Johnson dominated, leading 225 laps to win and take the points lead. While Kenseth faltered the following week at Phoenix, Johnson had no problems. He finished third, all but sealing the title. Johnson clinched the crown with a ninth-place finish in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“My motivation to follow through this year and to work as hard as I can really is the same motivation I've always had to succeed in this sport,’’ Johnson said.
“I've worked so hard and long to get to this point, I'm finally on top of my game. I've worked a lifetime to get here. There's more motivation staying on top for those reasons than chasing stats and the historical things that are out there in front of me now, it's really something that comes from within.’’
His success is leading many to question where he ranks in the sport’s history. Only Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt have more championships (seven) than Johnson. So, is Johnson is among the top five drivers in series history? Top three? The best?
Former champion Dale Jarrett doesn’t list the best in order but notes Johnson belongs in the discussion.
“He’s one of the most talented individuals I’ve seen drive one of these racecars,’’ said Jarrett, an analyst for ESPN. “He probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves.’’
Just look at the variety of wins Johnson recorded this year. He won two restrictor-plate races (sweeping Daytona), won on a short track (Martinsville), won on a banked mile track (Dover), won on a flat, big track (Pocono) and had a victory on a 1.5-mile track (Texas). The only thing missing was a victory on a road course and he had top-10 finishes at Sonoma and Watkins Glen.
“He can feel the car,’’ Knaus said, explaining Johnson’s success on a variety of tracks. “He can be one with the car. I know that sounds foolish, it sounds weird. But, seriously, go to a surfer and ask him about his surfboard. Go to a snowboarder and ask him about his snowboard. Go to a skier, ask him about his skis.
“When they're able to get in that position and they feel the car, understand what the car is going to do, it's pretty amazing. Jimmie can really do that. He feels what's going on.’’
When he’s got that feeling, the only thing others feel is defeat. Just like this season
MRN will broadcast the Awards on Dec. 6 starting at 8 p.m. (ET), with live streaming at MRN.com.