DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Being dethroned as Sprint Cup champion forced Jimmie Johnson to re-evaluate, reinvent this offseason.
Johnson, whose record run of five consecutive championships ended in 2011, stumbled to a sixth-place finish last season, his lowest in a decade as a full-time driver.
"It's tough to truly change," he said during a break in testing on Thursday at Daytona. "We all know if you sit still in this sport you get passed up and we've been evolving as a team and as individuals through the last five years, but it was really apparent to me once we left Homestead and I got into the offseason [that] it was really tough to reinvent myself, to reinvent the team, to think about things in a different way because we had a road map that was working. So why change?"
Certainly, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus had made enough adjustments in years past to maintain a grip on the Sprint Cup title trophy. But this season, he said, they've done a better job at adapting.
"The weird thing is we really tried to make change each year. That was our goal. So until it was all gone I couldn't really evaluate what had gone on over the five years," Johnson said. "I was kind of protective of some things and maybe I was a little narrow-minded and staying on a certain path. It's been a lot of growth through the offseason I've been happy to experience [it]."
Knaus' offseason stretched a few days longer than the rest of the team, as the workaholic was granted permission to take a vacation to South Africa. The vacation, Johnson surmised, was Knaus' first of any substance in their 11 years as partners.
Teams will test a host of rules package changes through Saturday designed to dislodge the two-car draft tandems that have become the mode of attack at Talladega and Daytona. Among those changes are spoiler and spring adjustments and smaller radiators and cooling systems, which, in theory, would cause cars to overheat if linked nose-to-tail for more than a few laps. Drivers have also been forbidden from communicating with each other to coordinate their drafting machinations, particularly the tricky art of swapping positions. Mark Martin accidentally spun out new Michael Waltrip Racing teammate Clint Bowyer while drafting on Thursday afternoon, causing significant damage to Bowyer's No. 15 Toyota although it didn't strike anything.
Top speeds in single-car runs on Thursday were more than three seconds faster than the 2011 Daytona 500 qualifying pace of Dale Earnhardt Jr., and several two-car tandems eclipsed 200 mph, the boundary which NASCAR has often endeavored to avoid.
"I like going faster than we've been going," said Earnhardt Jr., the 2004 Daytona 500 winner who won the pole last season with a 48.364-second lap around the 2.5-mile superspeedway. "The cars [have been] really, really slow by themselves the last couple years at Daytona and Talladega. Qualifying in the mid-180 [mph] range is just way too slow."
Series director John Darby said he was "excited" to "pencil in about 195-mph pole lap" for the Feb. 26 Daytona 500.
Vice president of competition Robin Pemberton said NASCAR will request drivers race in a large pack on Friday to better assess the impact of the changes in race-like conditions.
Defending Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart has not yet decided whether to assign his points from last season to teammate Danica Patrick to assure her entry in the Daytona 500. The top 35 drivers by points from the previous year are guaranteed entry into the first five races of the season. Patrick, who will attempt 10 Cup races in conjunction with her full Nationwide schedule, would otherwise need to earn a spot in the race by qualifying time or in qualifying races.
"I think we're still trying to figure that equation out, but the good thing is looking on the sheet today, the car seems to have good speed," Stewart said. "I've got the utmost confidence that even in the worst case scenario that we've got the right driver that can get this car in the race, no problem. But we're working through that and trying to get that finalized and trying to figure out our options to make sure we give her the best opportunity to get in the Daytona 500 and get her all the experience that we can get her."
Patrick was eighth-fastest in the morning session with a best lap of 191.473 mph and 16th in the evening (191.926). Kyle Busch (202.402) led the final session on Thursday.
Earnhardt Jr. was adamant on Thursday that Matt Kenseth owes him $2,500 for shaving his offseason beard before testing. Earnhardt Jr. had wagered Kenseth at his New Year's Eve party that Kenseth wouldn't keep his Fu Manchu and sideburns through testing. Kenseth said he shaved in preparation for a photo shoot on Monday.
"I was hoping [Earnhardt Jr. would forget]," Kenseth said. "Back when he was younger he could have had enough beers in him where he wouldn't have remembered that, but I guess he remembered it."