Johnson's streak ending only fuels fire

BY foxsports • November 15, 2011

The last time Jimmie Johnson was not NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series champion, Saddam Hussein was on trial for war crimes in Iraq. The year was 2005 and Lance Armstrong was fresh off his seventh-straight Tour de France victory and Danica Patrick was a rookie, enjoying worldwide acclaim after becoming the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500.

You have to back even further — to Johnson’s 2002 rookie season — to find a year when he was mathematically eliminated from the title before the season’s final race. The Enron financial scandal and Washington D.C. sniper shootings were dominating headlines and the New England Patriots were considered an upset winner in the Super Bowl.

Johnson’s worn NASCAR’s crown so long.

“My wife just thought it was the Jimmie Johnson event because ever since we’ve been married he’s been the champion,’’ Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon said of the annual NASCAR champion’s banquet. “I think it’s going to be unique and different to see somebody else up there on that stage.’’

The three points separating points leader Carl Edwards and two-time Cup champ Tony Stewart guarantees one of the most suspenseful season finales in years this weekend in Homestead, Fla. — a fitting next act as Johnson’s amazing achievement comes to an end.

His historic reign as NASCAR champion wasn’t just “a good run,” as they say. It was a form of dominance the sport will most definitely never see again.

It wasn’t like Johnson had a good month, or a couple outstanding seasons. This was half a decade of unmatched performance.

With each season, racing fans and pundits wondered how it would be possible for Johnson to win it all again. And year after year — through different playoff formats and against increasingly motivated competitors — Johnson prevailed. Sometimes it wasn’t even close.

With humility and self-deprecating humor, Johnson maintained an even keel through the seasons even as his confidence — understandably — grew. And after the previous five seasons, who would doubt him?

It wasn’t until his 14th place finish Sunday at Phoenix — which dropped him to fifth in the standings, 61 points behind Edwards — that he conceded his chances were over for a sixth-straight crown.

“I’ve been racing 30 years; shoot, 31 years and I’ve won probably two other big championships along the way,’’ Johnson said, gamely facing reporters after the race. “So, seven out of 31 years; this is normal. What we did over the last five years is abnormal. And then now we’ll get a taste of normalcy.”

Dr. Christopher Carr, a sports psychologist at the Indianapolis-based St. Vincent’s Sports Performance Center has never met Johnson but has worked with Olympians and other elite athletes — including IndyCar drivers and NCAA teams — for nearly 30 years.

Contrary to what you may think, he says, a champion like Johnson typically rebounds better than most from a letdown or career disappointment. It is not as devastating as it is motivating.

“Most athletes that achieve that level of success have resilience attributes that help them overcome hardship and re-focus after a setback,’’ Carr said. “They are typically pretty good at re-establishing goals to come back in the future.

“What other people may define as a letdown or a disappointment, elite athletes do a good job managing the challenge effectively. An aspect of their resilience is seeing the setback as a challenge instead of a threat.’’

“Instead of a negative blow to their confidence or belief in abilities, they say, ‘how can I take this season, set goals and get back to the level we expect.’

“Winning is an outcome, it’s not the process.’’

This appears to be the case for Johnson, judging by his initial reaction this week.

“We’ll definitely learn,’’ Johnson said. “To a certain degree being on top for as long as we have been takes a lot of effort to maintain that. It just takes a lot out of you. So this winter will be a nice winter to unplug and relax and really look internally and dissect the different areas of the race team and what we do and come back stronger.

“I’ve always learned more from tougher moments and by no means is this a tough moment. Yes, the streak is gone but we’ve still got a shot at a top-five in points and that would be a big year still.’’

Because no driver has even performed at the level Johnson has over the past decade, it’s hard to understand exactly how tough his reality will be these next few weeks.

“Most human beings try to comfort a loss or rationalize why it happens,’’ Carr said. “The elite athletes like Johnson can acknowledge that one disappointment but what inspires or motivates is ‘next season,’ getting the next goal.

“If winning is your only goal, you’ll be miserable most of the time. The ultimate measuring stick is performing at your peak."

And that’s something no one has done better than Jimmie Johnson in a long, long time.

“There’s definitely disappointment,’’ Johnson allowed. “I think that will be the emotion I deal with first.

“And then over the offseason, I’m sure it will kick-in some and reflect. I’ll reflect then, but still; in order for us to be where we want to be next year, we’ve got to work very, very hard during this offseason to understand what’s up and that’s not going to make it all that relaxed.

“So, I’m up for the challenge. This team is. My guys work so hard and we’ll learn and grow from this.”

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