Five keys to Jimmie Johnson's sixth NASCAR championship
On Sunday evening at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Jimmie Johnson will take that familiar walk. After parking his number 48 Chevy on the frontstretch, the confetti cannons will fire and he'll climb out of the cockpit. He'll then climb onto a makeshift stage to celebrate winning his sixth Sprint Cup championship.
Oh, there's a chance Johnson could falter, but it would be an upset along the lines of top-ranked Alabama losing to a community college team. Heading into the season finale, Johnson holds a 28-point lead over Matt Kenseth and a 34-point edge over Kevin Harvick. Even if Kenseth leads the most laps and takes the checkered flag, Johnson would only need to finish 23rd or better to clinch the title.
So Johnson, who has never lost a championship when he has held the points lead going into Homestead, will almost surely be your 2013 NASCAR champion. Here are the five reasons why he won this title -- and why he'll be partying deep into the night on the sands of South Beach on Sunday:
Johnson is not a flashy driver. He won't dramatically slide through the turns like a Kyle Busch and he won't rub fenders like a Tony Stewart. His best skill, in fact, is one you can't even see on the track: His ability to articulate precisely what he's feeling in the cockpit and order changes to the setup of his car during pit stops. This isn't necessarily a sexy skill, but it's been fundamentally vital to his success.
Johnson also simply doesn't make mistakes behind the wheel. He'd rather lift off the throttle then put the nose of the 48 car in a precarious position. After surviving a horrifying crash in the Baja 1000 when he was 19 - Johnson momentarily nodded off and tumbled off a cliff at 110 mph -- he reached a career-altering conclusion: the number-one most important thing in racing is taking care of your equipment.
"I was young, and all I thought about was going fast and being aggressive," Johnson told me a few years ago about that wreck in Mexico, in which he suffered no more than a few scratches. "Well, I realized in the desert that I needed to be smarter. I still needed to push the car, but I also needed to bring it home clean. I needed to find that balance, and I began to find it that night in Mexico."
There are a lot of hardworking, obsessed-with-speed types in NASCAR, and then there is Chad Knaus. No one in the sport is as hyper-focused and driven as Knaus. He puts in the kind of hours that NFL coaches keep, which explains why he understands his cars as if they were his own children.
Take what happened last week at Phoenix International Raceway. Holding a seven-point edge over Kenseth, Knaus unloaded the number 48 Chevy from the hauler and right away Johnson rose to the top of the speed chart in the first practice. Kenseth struggled near the back of the pack. For the rest of the weekend, this early edge allowed Knaus and Johnson to tweak and perfect their setup while Kenseth and his crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, took big, wild swings at trying to find speed, which they never did. So essentially Knaus had Kenseth and Ratcliff beat before the cars were even on the track.
Boasting 550 employees, Hendrick Motorsports is the gold-standard operation in NASCAR. All four Hendrick drivers -- Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kasey Kahne -- qualified for the Chase for the second straight year. No other four-car team in the Chase era has ever accomplished that.
It's no secret that resources equal speed in NASCAR, and if you ever took a tour of Hendrick's sprawling, 600,000 square foot facility in Concord, N.C. -- it's more like a small college campus than a race shop -- you'd understand why the Hendrick cars are so fast.
I've had several drivers tell me that they wish NASCAR would change the Chase schedule for one reason: It sets up too perfectly for Johnson. The 10-race playoff features his best tracks and he doesn't have a weak one on the slate. "It's almost like Jimmie designed the schedule himself," said one driver. "I mean, every place we go to in the Chase, you know that Jimmie is going to be fast just by looking at his career statistics at every Chase track."
Not surprisingly, Johnson's 24 career wins in the Chase is a record.
Johnson's typical MO each season goes like this: start fast, slow down during the summer, then heat up just as the Chase begins in September. He typically likes to build a points lead early in the year and then he and Knaus can treat the races during the summer months as glorified test sessions to find setups that will work in the Chase.
This fall, Johnson entered the Chase in a funk. He had struggled on 1.5-mile tracks and he didn't finish higher than 28th in the last four races of the regular season. In fact, out of all the eventual Chase drivers, Johnson scored the fewest points in the month leading up to the playoffs.
Then ... voila! The Chase begins and Johnson suddenly drives as though he has an extra 50 horsepower under the hood. What's more, his car is perfectly balanced through the corners -- the place where races are won and lost. Two weeks ago, he even took his first checkered flag of the year at a 1.5-mile track when he reached Victory Lane at Texas.
Knaus and Johnson have a well-established, proven formula for capturing championships, which is why everyone in the garage already knows this hard fact about the 2014 season:
Johnson will again be the driver to beat.