For Jimmie Johnson, not being king creates a curious balance.
After five consecutive seasons at the top of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, Johnson ended the 2011 season sixth in the points standings — his worst finish since he entered the tour full time in 2002.
Johnson led the points for two weeks just before the Chase for the Sprint Cup began, but the No. 48 Lowe’s team never established the traction in 2011 it had enjoyed in the past — particularly once the postseason began. Although the team picked up steam following a victory in Kansas four races into the Chase and vaulted to third in the points standings, Johnson’s ensuing wreck at Charlotte Motor Speedway sealed the team’s fate.
Johnson was mathematically eliminated from contention following the penultimate race of the season at Phoenix International Raceway. In some ways the 36-year-old Hendrick Motorsports racer seems relieved not be the defending champion now.
“When I left Phoenix, it was crazy, just feeling the pressure kind of leave,” Johnson said. “I didn’t realize what was on me, the high standard I held for myself and the pressure I was carrying. And when it left, it was like ‘OK, there it goes; now it’s time to enjoy Homestead.’ I went down there and had a great time, and I think we had a really fast car.
“But it was a wild experience just to feel the pressure leave from Phoenix — until I saw all the tweets about the champion’s lunch taking place on Wednesday. Then that championship mindset hit me again, and I became really disappointed that I wasn’t there at that (finale contender) luncheon and a part of all of it.”
Well before the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway there were indications that this wasn’t the same No. 48 Lowe’s team as in years past. In the five previous seasons, Johnson won five or more races and a pole each year. Johnson’s average qualifying effort of 12.9 last season was his worst since 2002 — his rookie year. There were changes to the crew and changes to the pit crew. And there were times at the track and on the radio when the driver and crew chief Chad Knaus appeared at odds.
“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; those pressures had ratcheted things up, and they started to affect the decision-making process,” Johnson said. “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.”
Perhaps that’s what frustrated Johnson the most. In the past, Johnson had been able to control his destiny, to some degree, or as much as top race teams can. In the past decade, there hasn’t been a team in NASCAR that has been able to not just beat the odds but recover when faced with adversity as well as Johnson’s group.
Last year, Johnson felt the team gave the title away.
“I’m just upset at the way we lost the championship last year,” Johnson said. “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.”
So Johnson changed his offseason routine. Without the demands beholden to the champion, Johnson’s down time was fairly banal.
“I spent a lot of time just disconnecting from the sport in some ways — in all ways,” Johnson said. “I won’t say some ways. I didn’t run the Rolex 24. I didn’t even go to the Super Bowl this year. 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 acknowledged that during its five-year championship run, the No. 48 team did not evolve as much as it should have. The team did not become complacent or rest on its laurels, but more of an effort could have been made to move forward. Certainly, when a successful strategy exists, changing to the unfamiliar can be frightening.
“It’s tough to leave a successful road map, and Chad and myself and the team has 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.
“At the same time, the garage area has been extremely focused on everything the 48 car has done over the last six years. Maybe years three or four, a lot of guys came our direction and really paid attention to what we were doing, and then they caught us and we got beat. So we’ve got to reinvent ourselves in some ways this year.”
Since Johnson’s sophomore season (2003), the No. 48 team has been viewed as a perennial contender. In 363 starts, Johnson has 55 wins and is the only driver to qualify for every Chase. In a recent NASCAR media poll, Johnson was selected as the favorite again.
Does Johnson still believe the No. 48 sets the bar in the Sprint Cup garage?
“We’re in there, to some degree, but — at least the way my mind works — you go off the present,” Johnson said. “When last year closed out, it was all (about Stewart’s team), and (Carl Edwards) certainly had a stellar run through the final 10 races. People expect a lot out of us. I expect a lot out of us. But we have to go out and kind of command that, or create that in order for it to be in people’s minds, because, if you’re not doing it on a weekly basis, there’s someone else that is, and you just focus on the present.
“People think about us. People know we’re going to be there and be a part of it. In the past, we’ve talked about an advantage, maybe getting into some teams’ heads to a small degree — making them think about you. I don’t think we’re there right now because of how we finished the year off, but within three or four good races, a couple wins, we can be right back in that controlling situation.”