For Jimmie Johnson, Daytona Starts Quest For 7th Title

Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson starts his quest for a seventh title in the Daytona 500, which he won last year.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Let’s talk about Jimmie Johnson.

I can assure you many, many people have during the approach of the Daytona 500, the season’s opening NASCAR Sprint Cup race.

Johnson is the defending Daytona 500 champion. He is a two-time winner of NASCAR’s most prestigious race and, in fact, swept both Daytona races in 2013.

Last season he won his sixth championship. That’s one less than Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, who share the NASCAR record for most career titles.

Among the storylines created at Daytona – those of Austin Dillon, Danica Patrick, Tony Stewart – one of the most prominent has been the start of Johnson’s quest to win a seventh championship.

He and all other competitors will face a new challenge in the revamped Chase for the Sprint Cup format. Among other things, 16 drivers will be part of the “playoff” and there will be an elimination system over the final 10 races.

The Chase has been modified at least three times. Johnson has won a title in each.

If he wins this year he will have, in a sense, beaten everything NASCAR has thrown at him.

He comes into the Daytona 500 as a favorite to do just that. Virtually every team will tell you that if they want to win a championship, they are going to have to beat Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports organization.

One driver said, “If any of us want to be champion we are going to have to figure out how to beat that animal.”

Johnson’s Chevrolet erupts in flames after it ran out of gas and was clipped by Jamie McMurray, which started an eight-car melee.

Johnson is well aware of his status. But he’s not overly concerned about it – and he hasn’t paid much attention to it.

“Since the Awards Banquet, I haven’t given the championship a lot of thought,” Johnson said. “At the banquet, and some of the stories that were around it and the questions that were asked, my mind was much more present with it.

“But I got into the off-season and relaxed and let go of racing and it was really nice to get into January and not have racing on the brain at all.

“So, I haven’t put a lot of thought into it. It would be awfully cool to get it done. But it’s been out of my mind for a couple of months. So I don’t have anything too relevant to discuss.”

Johnson’s week at Daytona hasn’t been a particularly good one – in fact, it’s been miserable.

He crashed on the last lap of his Budweiser Duel qualifying race on Feb. 20. He finished 16th and will utilize a backup Chevrolet and move to the rear of the field in the 500.

Johnson ran out of fuel and was clipped by Jamie McMurray’s Chevy. Eight cars became involved, including Clint Bowyer’s Toyota, which did a 360-degree turn in the air before landing on all four tires.

“I feel terrible and apologize to everyone,” Johnson said. “I knew I was going to get run over if I ran out of fuel because my guys warned me about it – and it did.”

 

Johnson also crashed in the Feb. 15 Sprint Unlimited after just 28 laps. No one else was involved. He finished 17th in the 18-car field.

“I was trying to experiment in the Unlimited when I spun out,” Johnson said. “I was truthfully trying to pass Denny Hamlin off of Turn 4 to see what would happen from the exit of 4 to the stripe and how things would play out.

“But I didn’t make it very far and ended up wrecked. Looking at how small the field was toward the end of the race and the fact there was some passing, it is really leading toward a revolving door.”

As do other drivers, Johnson feels the Daytona 500 will be a good race with plenty of side-by-side competition. But there will be challenges, given the alterations to the Gen 6 car, among other things.

“I think Chad (Knaus, crew chief) pointed out to me that all of this kind of goes back into the sweet spot of drafting that I’m good at,” Johnson said. “It certainly showed that last year with the two wins at four of the plate tracks and a threat to win all four of them.

“It’s more of my style than necessarily the rules package.  The rules haven’t been changed that much coming back this year.  I think the goal was to create more passes for the lead and I’m feeling good about that.  I think that is going to happen.

“It will be interesting to see what drivers do. Right away in the Unlimited, when the lead car had control of the race, he went to the top and got us all single file. If you went to the low side and didn’t get help, you would drop far back into the pack.

“I’m not sure you’re going to want the lead until you come off of Turn 4. Somebody’s going to have a run, the second car back or third car back, and come up through there.

“So, I think there’s a chance for a lot of passing come Sunday.”

While it’s certain Johnson has, and will, get more than his share of attention, it does appear the native Californian isn’t a dominant figure in the garage area – certainly not like Petty and Earnhardt. And he’s not the fans’ favorite. You know who that is.

Johnson doesn’t mind.

“I think a lot of people are tired of hearing my name,” he said. “It’s not bad to have the attention go somewhere else.

“I hope to be back in everyone’s mindset come Sunday evening because I’m the winner of the Daytona 500.”

And thus the quest for victory, and championship No. 7, begins today.

Hamlin Wins As Six-Time Champ Jimmie Johnson’s Legacy Grows

Denny Hamlin won at Homestead-Miami to earn his first victory of the year and keep alive his streak of at least one win in each of his eight full NASCAR seasons.

Perhaps the Ford EcoBoost 400, the final race of the 2013 NASCAR Winston Cup season, ended the way it should have – with more than one compelling story.

—- After 400 miles of racing, Jimmie Johnson won his sixth career championship. The Hendrick Motorsports driver now has just one less title than Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, the sport’s titans.

—- When the green flag fell at Homestead-Miami Speedway, all Johnson was 28 points ahead of challenger Matt Kenseth and had only to finish 23rd or better to lock up the title.

Kenseth had a remarkable race, one in which he did all that was humanly possible to wrest the championship out of Johnson’s hands.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver led 144 laps, twice as many as any other competitor, and finished second. Had any misfortune struck Johnson – which, admittedly, was not likely – Kenseth would be the 2013 champ.

—- A back injury that forced Denny Hamlin to miss four races earlier this year all but obliterated his chances to make the Chase, much less win a championship.

But Hamlin resuscitated his season with a victory at Homestead, his first of the year and the 23rd of his career.

Hamlin, Kenseth’s teammate at Gibbs, has now won at least once in each of his eight full Sprint Cup seasons.

—- Johnson finished ninth at Homestead to win the title by 19 points over Kenseth and 34 over Kevin Harvick, the only other driver with at least a mathematical chance at the championship, who finished 10th.

Johnson won his sixth title at age 38. Petty was also 38 and Earnhardt was 42.

It is abundantly clear Johnson will have the opportunity to win a seventh title and maybe more. Petty said he wouldn’t be surprised if Johnson won eight to 10 titles.

Matt Kenseth, who won the pole, gave it his all to overtake Johnson in the point standings by leading 144 laps and finishing second. However, it wasn’t enough.

Despite the fact that Johnson isn’t the most popular driver in NASCAR, the inarguable fact is that he is one of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport.

Five of his six championships were won in succession from 2006-2010, which easily eclipsed Cale Yarborough’s three in a row from 1976-1978 and stood as the NASCAR record until Johnson’s singular achievement.

His six victories this season were second only to Kenseth’s seven. Johnson now has 66 career wins, which puts him in eighth place on NASCAR’s all-time list.

Johnson has never been one to blow his own horn. But he does realize the future will offer him opportunities to embellish his own legacy.

“I look forward to the opportunity,” Johnson said. “I hope that I can certainly accomplish more.

“I feel like this team is capable of a lot of great things.  There are still great years out ahead of us.  But all of that is in the future, a seventh, an eighth.  Richard said eight to ten.  That’s all ahead of us.

“I don’t want to focus on that yet.  It’s not time.  I want to unplug, enjoy the sixth, and let it soak in.  We’ll get to Daytona for testing soon enough.  I guess by then it’s probably appropriate to ask the question.”

And Johnson also realizes what has been said, and written, about him by his peers and the media.

“I’m humbled by the nice things that have been said by competitors and owners, my peers in this industry,” Johnson said. “I think their opinion is very important.  I don’t think my opinion matters.  It’s not for the athlete, the driver.  It’s bestowed upon you; it’s passed down from others.

“If others are saying it, I’m not going to deny it, chase it away.  Sure, I would love to be considered the greatest driver.

“But if you look at stats, there’s still numbers out there that I need to achieve.  That’s why I say that until I hang my helmet up, it’s not necessarily a fair conversation to have.

“I’m honored to be in the conversation and I know I will have to face it, especially being this close to seven and having a shot to tie those guys.”

—- Kenseth, the 2003 champion, had been this year’s points leader for six of the Chase’s first eight races but lost it following Martinsville.

He was still in striking distance until Phoenix, where he had his worst showing in the Chase. He finished 23rd to give Johnson the 28-point pad he had going into Homestead.

It was too much for Kenseth to overcome – but not because he didn’t try hard.

Second place and 144 laps led clearly indicate Kenseth, in his first season with Gibbs, made a strong run to win the title.

“We had a good night – we were really dominant when the sun was out,” he said. “We struggled a little bit when it went down and a lot of that will lay on the driver who was probably a little reluctant to get up in the groove where I needed to run to make any speed.

“It was just an unbelievable year for us really.  Obviously, we wanted to finish off and win the championship as good as we ran all year, but I couldn’t be more proud of the whole team.

“They did a spectacular job all season and all day today again.”

—- Hamlin’s victory meant a one-two finish for Gibbs. More important, it provided momentum for Hamlin, who said he and his team need to boost their efforts for 2014.

“This just just gives us huge momentum,” Hamlin said. “We started kicking things into gear about two months ago and then last week (Phoenix) with a horrific effort that kind of gets your spirits down.

“But then, to come here to Miami and back it up with a win, well, this is something we can think about for the entire winter.”

Indeed, Hamlin and Kenseth have momentum and look forward to better things in 2014.

But so does Jimmie Johnson, who may well enhance his legacy in seasons to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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