Sturbin: Big Battle For Jimmie Came After Season
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
Five-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson says his selection as 2010 Driver of the Year left him shocked and honored, the result of an inconsistent Sprint Cup season and the larger-than-life presence of NHRA Funny Car star John Force.
“I would assume that (John) Force would be a shoe-in,” Johnson, 35, admitted during a teleconference on Thursday. “That old fart going as fast as he does and standing on the gas as hard as he does, I was shocked to beat him. When I look through the list of guys that were all up for it, it is a great honor to be Driver of the Year.”
Voting for the 44th edition of the oldest and most prestigious motorsports award in North America came down to Johnson and Force. Johnson wrapped up his unprecedented fifth consecutive Cup championship in comeback fashion last month, while Force traveled a similar path en route to his record-setting 15th National Hot Rod Association title.
Johnson received 11 votes from 19 of the 20-member DOTY panel of national motorsports journalists and broadcasters who cast secret ballots late last month. Force earned seven votes and NASCAR’s versatile Kyle Busch received one.
In the days leading up to the final vote, Johnson said he would “stand up and applaud” if Force, 61, won DOTY for a second time. That was nearly the case before Johnson, of Hendrick Motorsports, emerged as DOTY winner for the fourth time since 2006.
“I would have hated to be a part of that (voting process) with all the competitive racing there was throughout the course of the year in all motorsports,” Johnson said after attending a special ceremony at Collinswood Language Academy in Charlotte, N.C., on Thursday.
Johnson and his wife, Chandra, announced the recipients of more than $650,000 in gifts from the Jimmie Johnson Foundation/Lowe’s Toolbox for Education Champions Grants for 13 deserving K-12 public schools in Southern California, Oklahoma and North Carolina.
Johnson began the Cup season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in second place, 15 points behind Denny Hamlin of Joe Gibbs Racing. Johnson finished second in the Ford 400 to winner Carl Edwards of Roush Fenway Racing and won the championship by 39 points over of Hamlin.
Like Johnson, Force prevailed in dramatic fashion by overcoming a 38-point deficit to rising star Matt Hagan during eliminations of the season-ending Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals in Pomona, Calif. Force won the event to finish 42 points in front of Hagan of rival Don Schumacher Racing. A week later, Force visited Johnson at HMS shortly before the NASCAR season-finale.
“The variety of comeback championship situations and everything here in our sport and how it turned out…it makes this honor all that more special,” said Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet Impala. “When you look at all the drivers that were nominated for Driver of the Year, I don’t know how you even pick it. Very surprised and again, honored.
“If you look at the story and the way that the championships were won and how people
performed in clutch situations, it was a very, very competitive battle for the award. I was hopeful that I was the winner; I felt like five in a row should maybe lean in my direction. But it’s Driver of the Year, not Driver of the Decade or Driver of the Last Five Years, so I didn’t know how that was all going to weigh-in.”
Johnson won six Cup races in 2010 and now has 53 during his 10-year career. But he posted just one victory during the Chase for the Sprint Cup – NASCAR’s 12-driver/10-race playoff to close the season. Still, Johnson recorded four podium finishes and seven top-five results during the Chase while finishing no lower than ninth in the postseason. He also posted a series-best 17 top-five finishes while leading a series-best 1,314 laps.
Johnson became the first driver to win the Chase after starting the season-finale out of the point lead. In NASCAR’s “Modern Era” dating from 1975, only seven-time Cup champion Richard Petty (1979) and Alan Kulwicki (1992) have posted come-from-behind titles.
Alluding to his Cup title-runs from 2006-09, Johnson noted this championship was different. ”The year that we had, the inconsistency that we had, but still the result being the same speaks a lot to my ability, the ability of Chad (Knaus, crew chief), the team,” Johnson said. “Our team atmosphere was tested this year at the Texas race and then those final two races.”
Knaus ordered a potentially morale-damaging swap of pit crews with that of his team-
owner/mentor Jeff Gordon during the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, then made the changes permanent for the subsequent Chase races at Phoenix International Raceway and HMS.
“We won six races and there were some shining spots in the year, but it was a tough year for us,” Johnson said. “To still end up with the championship makes me really proud.”
The 2010 DOTY is Johnson’s fourth, tying him with Gordon for most all-time. Johnson previously won DOTY in his Cup championship seasons of 2006, 2007 and 2009. Johnson will receive a trophy and a Tissot wristwatch at a place and time to be announced later.
Open-wheel icon Mario Andretti was voted inaugural winner of Driver of the Year in 1967. The award is open to all competitors in major North American-based racing series. Quarterly awards lead to the final overall DOTY vote. Force became the first drag racer to win DOTY in 1996.
“It was an honor to be runner-up for the 2010 Driver of the Year award,” Force said in a statement. “I want to congratulate Jimmie Johnson on winning this year and winning five NASCAR titles in a row. That is quite an accomplishment and I want to salute him for his efforts.
“I won Driver of the Year in 1996 and that was a great season for me and my team. I was
hoping to win again this year but sometimes you give it your best and it doesn’t work out. To be seriously considered with Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch is a great honor for me, my team, my sponsors like Castrol, Ford and Auto Club as well as the NHRA.”
Force was announced as the award’s fourth quarter winner last week. “Winning fourth quarter Driver of the Year was important to me because that is when you want to be at your best – at the end of the season,” said Force, owner/driver of the Castrol GTX High-Mileage Ford Mustang. “I look at being up for awards like this the same way I run my race teams. You want to surround yourself with the best people and I was surrounded by the best competitors when the final voting came down.”
Force returned to form in 2010 after suffering life-threatening injuries in a horrific crash three years ago to win his record-setting 15th Full Throttle Drag Racing Series championship.
Force became the first Funny Car driver in the NHRA’s six-event Countdown to 1 playoff history to come from behind on the last day of the season and win the title. Force, who went winless in 2009 for the first time since 1987, won a category-leading six national events while reaching a category-best 11 final rounds. Force also reached a category-best four final rounds during the Countdown to 1, with two wins.
Force was bruised and battered in September 2007 following a crash at Texas Motorplex in Ennis that left him with a broken ankle, punctured leg, severely dislocated wrist, broken toes and fingers, ligament damage and numerous contusions. Months of soul-searching and rehabilitation followed for Force, easily NHRA’s most popular driver.
“When you look at going head-to head with Jimmie Johnson, I always want to go after the big boys,” Force said. “And I think this close vote showed that this year we had a great year and I’m very proud of the effort we gave. Missing out on Driver of the Year just fuels the fire. We will come back stronger and better in 2011 and we’ll be going after championship No. 16.”
At 61 years and six months, “Brut” Force is the oldest champion in all of motorsports. Asked if he would be racing for championships at Force’s age, Johnson joked: “I can say ‘no’ on that. We look at Mark (Martin) at 51 and think, ‘How does he do it?’ I don’t know how Force does it at 61. I guess it’s because his work is done in four seconds or whatever it is, elapsed time-wise. I hope to be competing, but I know for a fact that I won’t be in Cup at 61.”
Meanwhile, the enigmatic Busch notched a combined 24 victories in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup, Nationwide and the Camping World Truck series. Busch, 25, drove various Toyota products for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Cup and Nationwide series and as owner of first-year Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Truck Series. Included in his victory total was an unprecedented sweep of the Cup, Nationwide and Truck series events at Bristol Motor Speedway in August.
The DOTY program is overseen by Barry Schmoyer, a businessman and sportsman of Sarasota, Fla. Further information on the award may be obtained from Driver of the Year Foundation, P.O. Box 49827, Sarasota, Fla., 34230; by calling (941) 379-2318 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
– John Sturbin can be reached at email@example.com Comments