Pressure's off Jimmie Johnson as he rebuilds game plan for 2012
Jeff Gordon can relate to some of what Jimmie Johnson went through over the past six seasons.
A four-time Cup Series champion himself, Gordon won two of his titles in consecutive fashion in 1997 and '98. Complacency, even in a campaign like '98, in which he won 13 races, is hard to avoid.
"What you do have is a confidence in yourself and your race team that you can win every time you get to the racetrack, and that's a powerful thing," Gordon said. "But to not take it for granted and not get complacent, I think is impossible."
After finishing sixth in the points standings in 2011, Johnson now seems, quite frankly, at ease. Sitting at a table during NASCAR's preseason media day, he playfully traded quips on the growing contingent of drivers turned dads and joked at the reporters picking him as the favorite to win this year's title, saying, "Unfortunately, you guys can't just give me the championship."
It took having his string of an unprecedented five straight titles end in order for Johnson to understand just how much the expectations of living up to his own legend had been weighing on him.
"It was crazy just feeling that pressure leave and I didn't realize what was on me, the high pressure I have for myself," he said. "When it was gone, it was like 'OK, there it goes.'"
The reality of it all started to set in after he wrecked Oct. 15 in Charlotte and came in 34th, putting him in eighth halfway through the Chase. He held onto hope through a 26th-place finish at Talladega, waiting to see if either eventual champ Tony Stewart or Carl Edwards suffered a setback.
Instead, they kept waging the closest points battle in playoff history, while Johnson continued to fall behind, putting up un-Johnson like finishes in a 10-race set he had come to own. When he had been officially eliminated from title contender after the next-to-last race of the year in Phoenix, Johnson said he could finally exhale.
"It was a wild experience," said Johnson, who had his worst finish of 10 full-time Cup seasons in 2011. "I realized I just needed to unwind in the offseason and it just cemented that I need some time to rest."
So he did. He stopped being Jimmie Johnson the racecar driver and he became just a husband and a father. He did things around the house and visited friends. There was no driving in the Grand-Am Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, no trip to the Super Bowl. For the first time in a long time he wasn't concerned with how he was going to keep his challengers at bay. He had, as he put it, simply disconnected.
"I just wanted to be at home and just spend time with the family and do things that I wanted to do," he said. "It sounds hilarious, but there are a lot of things that we ignore over the course of the year, and especially over the last six years."
Then, on Jan. 1 he and crew chief Chad Knaus began anew. While their game plan had produced title after title, it also caused them to not change as much as they needed to, allowing other contenders to close the gap and eventually pass them. The first step in writing the next chapter of the No. 48 was erasing that complacency.
"It's tough to leave a successful road map, and Chad and myself and the team have 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 step 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."
It would be foolish to categorize 2011 as the end of the Johnson Administration. Yes, his average Chase finish of 15.3 was drastically worse than the 10.8, 5.0, 5.7, 6.8 and 6.2 he posted in his title seasons of 2006-10. Yes, the two wins were his fewest as a series regular. Yes, he and Knaus had a few more heated arguments over the radio in past years, something Johnson blamed on "trying to keep the streak alive and a lot of other pressures that we didn't recognize until the championship was gone." But even in losing the championship, Johnson was more consistent than many other drivers.
Only Carl Edwards (9.4) and Kevin Harvick (18.8) had a better average finish throughout the entire season, and while Stewart's late surge may have shown that wins can bring a championship, consistency remains the clearest route to a title in this format.
That's why the smart money is on 2011 being nothing more than an aberration for Johnson, a point upon which NASCAR's media contingent agrees. Johnson received 147 points in the 2012 writers' poll, beating out Edwards by two points, while Stewart was picked third, followed by Gordon and Harvick.
"Now we need to go out and do our best to make them all look good," Johnson said.
The complacency has been peeled away, and Johnson returns with designs on a sixth tile, which would put him one behind the record of seven held by Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Johnson's place in the eye of fans has been a topic discussed ad nauseam. USA Today's Nate Ryan dubbed Stewart "The People's Champ," a label that's as much about his no-nonsense attitude as it is the fact that he's not Johnson, who had been labeled bland and corporate.
These days, Johnson is something else: he's reinvigorated.
"There's just an energy when you come in as a rookie," Johnson said. "I feel like I've found those things again in my mind."
That may spell trouble for the rest of the Cup garage, and those fans hoping they'd seen the last of seasons culminating in Johnson title celebrations.