In shadow of 3, Johnson prepares for Daytona 500
February 20, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
"I think a lot of people are tired of hearing my name," Johnson said with a grin, meeting with reporters before practice Wednesday.
"It's not bad to have the attention go somewhere else. I hope to be back in everyone's mindset come Sunday evening in being the winner of the Daytona 500."
With rookie Austin Dillon winning the Daytona 500 Coors Light Pole award for Sunday’s race – the first Sprint Cup race laps for the famous No. 3 since 2001; Danica Patrick and Richard Petty’s exchange of words; Tony Stewart’s return from injury and drastic and exciting changes to NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs dominating recent news cycles, Johnson’s quest for a seventh title and his role at the Daytona 500 has been relegated to subplot.
"From the No. 3 car standpoint, that's the perk of winning the pole; you get to sit on it for a week, basically, and all the headlines leadoff with you as the pole sitter and we've been fortunate to be in that situation [before]," Johnson said. "I’m sure Danica would rather not be in the headlines at all with what's transpired there, but we’re under the radar for now I guess, but certainly hope to change that come race time."
That's not to say Johnson’s own time on the Daytona high banks this week have been uneventful.
He crashed out of the Sprint Unlimited non-points race on Saturday night -- his No. 48 Lowe's Chevy spinning by itself -- only 25 laps into the 75-lap race, while practicing drafting techniques with a newly tweaked version of the Gen-6 Chevy.
He had a great attitude about it, however, insisting that was his bad luck for the week. And that would be bad news for the competition.
Johnson responded with a 14th-best qualifying effort and can improve his Daytona 500 starting position with a good showing in Thursday night's Duel 150. He rolls off seventh in the second race.
Perhaps no one feels the challenge of having a new elimination-type Chase playoff formula as Johnson, who is a trophy away from joining the sport's only seven-time champions: Hall-of-Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
So even if Johnson's historic quest isn't receiving Speedweeks' top billing yet, Johnson's eyes are on the big prize -- and he's willing to methodically make a run at it. In fact, a brief pause from the cause was a welcome break from the pressure and expectations.
"Since the banquet, not much thought [went to winning a seventh title]," Johnson said. "At the banquet, and some of the stories that were around it and the questions that were asked, my mind was much more present with it. But I got into the off-season and relaxed and let go of racing and it was really nice to get into January and not have racing on the brain at all.
"So, I haven't put a lot of thought into it. It's a huge opportunity that we have, obviously, and I feel like we will be able to get a look or two at it as this year goes on and the next few years go on. It would be awfully cool to get it done. But it's been out of my mind for a couple of months."
Not, however, far from his competitors thoughts. Many preseason polls have Johnson the favorite again.
"I think that they realize that (the No. 48 team) are the ones to beat. … but I think they also understand that this situation this year is, probably, if you look at it on paper, you would have to think (the new Chase format) puts everybody else in a better scenario to beat the 48 team in the end," said recently inducted NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett, an analyst for ESPN's NASCAR broadcasts.
"That even though he's won more races in the Chase than anybody else by a large margin, you would say, okay, all he's got to do is win here, win here, move on to the last one and he's got it, but it's not going to be that simple.
"But I think that what I'm intrigued by is to see how they go about it because every time there's been a change, whether it's been in the car or whether it's been in the points. … the changes that have been made, they've adapted better than anyone else.
"Even when they didn't win the championship, they put themselves there, and there were just circumstances they created. How are they going to go about this? People are going to pay attention to what they're doing for sure, all of us are, but the teams in there are going to, also.
"You still have to make them the favorite, but I think it certainly brings a lot more people in the mix."
First, those teams will have to beat Johnson at Daytona, where -- spotlight or not -- he ultimately can't be ignored.
He swept both the Daytona 500 and Coke Zero 400 last year following his second Daytona 500 win. His first win in the 500 came in 2006 -- the year that kicked off five consecutive championship runs.
And he already has one leg-up on the field, beating all drivers -- and most of the field -- in a half-marathon Sunday morning, finishing the 13.1-mile course that incorporates a portion of the speedway in an impressive 1 hour, 28 minutes.
While Johnson may be flying under the radar so far this week, his competitors have their eyes on him.
"The respect factor from my peers is really important to me and it always has been," Johnson said. "I attribute a lot of that to the way I grew up racing and had some success, but not a lot of success. I enjoyed the race track because of my passion of competing and the relationships and friendships I had and whatever pits or garage area that existed in the vehicles I was racing.
"That whole environment has always been very important to me and relationships and respect have been really the foundation of all of that.
"And," Johnson continued, "I have to say, though, it was probably the second or third championship before I felt maybe the certain level of acceptance or respect. … and it means the world to me. It means more than the trophies ever will. Those relationships really are everything for me."