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 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.