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For Johnson, a strange test session in more ways than one

January 14, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com



For Johnson, a strange test session in more ways than one
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Johnson adjusting to new view of Cup garage as well as his own team in 2012

Jimmie Johnson bounded out of his No. 48 transporter, made a sharp turn, and began trotting off in the direction of his race car.

Then he stopped.

"Driving into the pits the first three or four times, I didn't know where to pull in. It's not going to end. That's a good thing, too, that reminder every week that I had it really good over there as the champion in that first spot."

--JIMMIE JOHNSON

He was heading toward the wrong end of the Sprint Cup garage at Daytona International Speedway.

"I can't help it," he said. "I'm still doing that every time."

It's been a strange Preseason Thunder for the five-time series champion, whose reign atop NASCAR's premier series ended last year. After a half-decade of having his transporter always parked in the first slot in the garage area and his car always in the first stall, everything seems to be in the wrong place. Then there's crew chief Chad Knaus, who isn't even here, but is still texting suggestions while on vacation in South Africa. Thankfully, it's only a test session, and the real race weekend doesn't arrive until next month.

"I've made more mistakes walking to the wrong end of the garage," Johnson lamented. "I've been programmed for so many years to walk to a certain stall that it's been tough. And even driving into the pits the first three or four times, I didn't know where to pull in. It's not going to end. That's a good thing, too, that reminder every week that I had it really good over there as the champion in that first spot."

It has to be a strange transition, having to learn how not to be champion anymore and let go of so many of the perks that come with the title. Johnson mocked that very thing during the 2011 awards ceremony in Las Vegas, where he playfully pretended to take what's always seemed his seat at the head table before turning it over to its new owner, Tony Stewart. Now, though, it's for real. No more No. 1 hauler spot in the garage. No more No. 1 garage stall. His transporter no longer gets to be the first into the race track each weekend, and Johnson no longer gets to be the first driver on the track for practice.

So no wonder the former champion -- how strange does that sound -- said he's spent a lot of this short offseason thinking about his place in his race team and how he can be better, with the understanding that all things that stay static in NASCAR fall behind.

"It's been a very good offseason for me to internalize some things, and to really evaluate what goes on from my standpoint, and my involvement with the team, and how good of a teammate and team member I can be for the 48 car, and I'm making changes," he said. "I feel like even though I tried to over the five year run not stall out and tried to continue to evolve and challenge myself and recreate myself, it's hard to do it. You have a road map that's working, and it's hard to get too far from it. This winter has been really good for me to really dive down and understand the areas where I feel like I can do a better job and be a better member of the 48 team. So I know I'm stronger and better today than I was leaving Homestead, so I'm looking forward to 2012."

For Johnson, last year was far from a vintage campaign. Both his win total (two) and his final points standing (sixth) were the lowest of his career as a full-time driver on NASCAR's top tour. Some of that was because his cars didn't have the speed they once did; some of that was because of strategy that didn't work out; and some of that -- most notably, perhaps, a crash in the fall Charlotte race that all but eliminated him from title contention -- he puts on himself.

"Really, the thing that motivates me is, the fire hasn't gone out in me to compete. And as long as that fire is burning, who I am as a person, I'm going to give 100 percent," Johnson said. "I know when I do a good job, what my responsibilities are. That's the thing that keeps motivating me and that's what I'm reflecting on from last year is, at times we did a good job, and when we put up 100 percent we got the results that we wanted. But some other time things just didn't work out as they should, and weren't handled correctly from my side and the way I went about things. So that's my motivation for this coming season, is to not make those mistakes and to do the best job that I can and be the best member of this 48 team that I can be."

And then there's Knaus, who unsurprisingly is still connected to the team via text message and email even while on safari. Car chief Ron Malec and engineer Greg Ives are running things for the No. 48 team in Daytona, with No. 88 crew chief Steve Letarte looking in from time to time. But it was Knaus, from half a world away, who reportedly nixed any notion of Johnson running in the pack-drafting session NASCAR officials urged drivers to put together Friday afternoon.

"We've got a very confident race team, and everybody is following the test plan, and we're going through the motions," Johnson said. "Truthfully a lot of the work for this test was done at the shop getting prepared, and now we're just following a test plan. It's worked out well for Chad to take some time for himself, and I'm really happy that he has decided to do this. As we all know, he doesn't give himself much personal time, and I've been on a similar trip to the one he's on now and know how special it was to [wife Chandra] and I. I can't wait to hear the stories when he gets back and what he goes through. It's been a nice calm test so far."

That will surely end at Speedweeks, when Knaus will be back and the intensity will ramp up as the Daytona 500 approaches. By then, maybe Johnson will have the location of his race car and transporter figured out.