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Johnson Suddenly Shaping Up As A Six-Timer

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, June 5 2012

Jimmie Johnson and his team appear to have shaken the effects of a "down" 2011 Sprint Cup season. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

Given his driving talents, his team’s equipment and, oh yes, the fact that he has been the best driver of his generation – if not of all time – the question that was put to Jimmie Johnson after Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Dover seemed pretty reasonable.

The answer he gave was equally reasonable and equally reflective of Johnson’s thorough, first-hand knowledge of the capriciousness of auto racing.

“You know,” Johnson said when asked if 2012 is shaping up to be the season that he and his Hendrick Motorsports team collect a sixth Sprint Cup trophy, “it’s just way too early to talk championship. I mean, we are doing the things right now that will win one, but we need to do this in September and on.”

However, Johnson’s victory in the FedEx 400 at the Monster Mile was more than just a race victory. It was evidence; evidence that the team and driver who won five straight championships and 35 races between 2006 and 2010 is back in form.

It’s evidence that the 2011 season, in which Johnson “only” won twice and finished “only” sixth in points did not signal the beginning of the end of his era. It’s evidence that the Johnson/Chad Knaus combo had not succumbed to well-publicized squabbling of a year ago and that crew chief Knaus and his people still

Jimmie Johnson was tough to beat on restarts at Dover. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

are among the very best of all time at making cars go fast as races progress.

The Dover victory, which was one of those dominating jobs, was the second in two weeks for Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick team. It gave them their fifth top-six finish in the last seven races. It gave them their 11th top-12 finish in the 13 races they have started this year. Only a wreck in the season-opening Daytona 500 and an engine failure at Talladega have spoiled their top-12 credentials this year.

They also won the non-points-paying Sprint All-Star Race and the pit crew competition which was part of All-Star week festivities.

So, yes, asking Johnson if he thinks this will be another championship season was quite reasonable.

Again, so was his answer.

In 2011, for a variety of reasons, he finished off the lead lap seven times. He had 14 non-top-12 finishes and two DNFs. His radio chatter/relationship with Knaus was scrutinized and the crew chief and his guys seemed less able to take the good cars that started the races and turn them into great cars by the end of day.

Both Johnson and Knaus know that speed can be fickle, that it comes and goes in racing; sometimes without explantion.

So, Johnson said, “We need to keep the pressure on and roll into September with the same thing going on in order to win a championship. When you look at what Tony (Stewart) and Carl (Edwards) went through last year, that’s a perfect example. You just don’t show up and think everything is going to turn out as you hoped. You have to get in there and race hard for all 10 races.”

At the same time, both Johnson and Knaus seemed a bit relieved about the recent run of success – by the 48 car and by the others on the Hendrick campus.

“You know,” Johnson said, “it’s nice to have the success right now because the last two years, we have been working very hard in a lot of areas and when you have success and continued success, you narrow down your focus in where you need to be.

“So you know, I think things are very good for our company. We know the areas where we found some

Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus still know how to hoist a trophy. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

raw speed and now we are fine-tuning from there. So honestly, first of all, have to make the Chase. And I think two wins puts us in a very nice position.”

Knaus seemed to say after the Dover race that the disappointing 2011 season not only did not fester in the off season, and then poison the 2012 season, but that it actually served to motivate the team.

He talked about how his people jumped into action as they wrestled with the changes emanating from Daytona Beach for the 2012 season.

“It’s a brand new race car, so you have always have to have a bit of an acclimation period for your car when you get to the track just to learn the intricacies of it,” Knaus said.

“Man, we came off the truck and we were real fast right off the box. We were trying a different set up and Jimmie felt like we needed to do something different. He made a big call personally for us to shift the setup in the race car and we did and he felt like it was some big changes.

“So we had to significantly change the race car once we got here. First in qualifying, Jimmie did a great job with the car then and that led us down the path we were today. Man, it went great. It went really well. It was a lot of fun.”

Probably not having so much fun are other teams who were hoping Johnson’s run was done. The teams who spent five years wondering when – not if – the Johnson/Knaus team would bring the hammer down. The teams who are currently ahead of the 48 in points and looking over their shoulders, and the team behind the 48 and wondering how the heck they are going to make up ground.

If you’re looking for a championship favorite at the third-of-the-way-through-the-season point, think blue car. The one which had the zebra on it in Victory Lane at Dover on Sunday.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Tuesday, June 5 2012
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