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2011 RESULTS 2 wins, 14 top fives, 21 top 10s
2012 OUTLOOK More committed than ever, Johnson and his team will stick to their game plan, and should carry it out.
HE STOOD UNDER AN AWNING THAT WAS SPROUTING from his motor coach in the Homestead-Miami Speedway infield and wondered how it all went wrong. The final race of the 2011 season was two days away, but Jimmie Johnson, the five-time defending Cup champion, had already been eliminated from title contention. "It's hitting me like a punch in the gut that our run is over," Johnson said. "I haven't had time to process the accomplishment of what we've done. But we're already in meetings, planning for next year. I really believe we have more titles in us."
Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, committed several uncharacteristic mistakes during the 2011 Chase. Johnson ran out of gas on the final lap in the playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway on Sept. 19 (he finished 10th); he wrecked at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Oct. 15 after putting his number 48 Chevy in a precarious position (he wound up 34th); and at Talladega Superspeedway on Oct. 23 he waited too long to make his typical late-race charge from the back of the pack (he came in 26th). Yet Johnson, who at age 36 remains in the prime of his career, will certainly be a force in the Cup series for years to come. Knaus and all of Johnson's other key crew members are back on board for '12.
All that means one thing: Mr. Five-Time, who finished sixth in the 2011 final standings, will again be the driver to beat.
"The only person and the only team that will ever have a chance at winning five in a row again is Jimmie and his crew," says defending Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart. "They don't have any weaknesses. They finally ran into some bad luck in the Chase, but there's not a driver or crew chief in the sport that doesn't think they'll be contenders for a long time. When his career is over, Jimmie will be considered one of the alltime greats. I think the question is, How many more titles will he win? It could be a bunch."
What makes Johnson and Knaus so difficult to beat is that the number 48 team doesn't have a weak track in the 10-race Chase. Over the last six years in the playoffs Johnson has more wins (14), more top five finishes (34) and more top 10s (44) than any other driver. Johnson's car, like all of the Hendrick Motorsports Chevys, was down on speed last fall, but owner Rick Hendrick promised to devote as many resources as needed over the off-season to remedy that problem.
"The bottom line is that we were not as competitive as we wanted to be," Hendrick says. "When you've tasted the success that Jimmie and Chad have had and now you've been beat, you've got to go to work and you've got to come back stronger."
The strategy for Johnson and Knaus in 2012 will be the same as it has been for the last six years. They'll try to start the season fast and build a points cushion in the standings. Then they'll use the summer to tinker with their setup, experimenting with different ideas that have specific aims, such as trying to perfect the balance of the car to gain increased speed through the turns. During these July and August races Johnson and Knaus typically don't care if they finish 20th or worse because they view these events as prep time for the Chase.
Then as the playoffs approach, they will implement what they've learned over that summer stretch. They'll quit taking swings at exotic setups and charge hard for victories, hoping to generate momentum before the Chase starts in September. That this formula didn't lead to a championship in 2011 is, in Johnson's view, largely because "I was the one holding the wheel at Charlotte [on Oct. 15]. I take full responsibility for us not winning again."