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Year in Review: Chase mistakes derailed Johnson's drive for sixth title

December 16, 2011, David Caraviello,

Year in Review: Chase mistakes derailed Johnson's drive for sixth championship

There is no bigger realist in the Sprint Cup garage area than Jimmie Johnson, who knew that at some point his unprecedented reign atop the sport's premier division would eventually come to an end. It seemed like it would last forever, Johnson's five-year run of championships, the blue and white transporter parked in the first spot in the garage area every week, the No. 48 team at the head table at the postseason awards banquet. As much as all that felt like a constant, Johnson was always well aware that one day it would all give way to someone else.

"If we lose the championship because we get beat, that's one thing. If we beat ourselves, that's another. And I feel that we beat ourselves this year."


2011 Statistics

WinsFirst 26Final 10
DNFs 11
Laps Led655460
Avg. Start 1410.1
Avg. Finish 10.6 15.3

And this year it did, as Tony Stewart snapped the longest run of consecutive championships in Cup Series history, and left Johnson in the strange position of bystander for the season's final week. Although he won twice and lurked around the top of the standings almost all year long, Johnson didn't have that invulnerability that he seemed to possess in years past, didn't intimidate just by his mere presence, made too many mistakes to contend until the very end. He was mathematically eliminated at Phoenix in the next-to-last week of the season, and in the finale suffered a mechanical problem that relegated him to just a footnote.

In the end, not only was his five-year championship streak snapped, but also his run of finishing inside the top five in points in every full-time season dating back to his rookie campaign of 2002. No wonder Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus did some soul-searching almost immediately after the season came to an end.

"I didn't realize the pressure I had on myself to keep the streak going," Johnson said recently. "When that light went out after Phoenix, a huge weight was lifted off of me. ... Then disappointment set in, and other emotions started working their way in. But we've had two major sit-down meetings discussing what changes we can make, what we can do better. The way we communicate, the note-taking we do, all of the aspects of how we work in the garage and time at-track, we're ... just trying to make sure we're doing all the right things. Times change, and what's worked for us the last five years, it didn't work for us this year. So maybe we need to make some changes in how we go about things."

Things certainly didn't seem any different in the early going. After a rough Daytona 500, Johnson went on one of his characteristic top-five binges, working his way up to second in points by mid-April. The capper to that run was a victory in the spring race at Talladega Superspeedway, where Johnson received a big push from teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. and nipped Clint Bowyer at the line by .002 seconds, a margin that tied the closest ever in NASCAR since electronic timing and scoring was implemented.

"We were just the lucky guy at the end with a good run," Johnson said at the time. "We had some big [momentum] on our side, and off we went."

It began to seem like title No. 6 was out there on the horizon, for the taking. Johnson didn't win, but he notched top-fives and top-10s with his usual clockwork efficiency, and by the fall race at Bristol -- the eve of the Chase -- had moved into his usual position atop the standings. He would vacate that position when the regular season ended and the championship-contending drivers were reseeded by race victories, but the point had been made nonetheless. Here comes Jimmie, everyone thought.

Except that Chase surge so indicative of the No. 48 team never arrived. They had been solid all season, no doubt, but they hadn't been able to pile up the race wins that had been so characteristic of their title reign. By the time the fall arrived, Johnson had gone a full calendar year with only a single race win, an unthinkable drought for someone with his credentials. To make matters worse, mistakes arose, beginning with an effort at New Hampshire to get around Kyle Busch. Johnson reached for a little too much, made contact, and fell back to 18th. He emerged from Loudon 10th in the standings, his lowest position ever in the playoff.

He seemed to right the ship quickly. He led 157 laps the next week at Dover before finishing second, and then led 197 the next weekend at Kansas to win for the second time and pull up to third in points. Everything seemed right again for the No. 48 team. Cue the Jaws theme, everyone thought. Here he comes.

But he didn't. The next week at Charlotte, Johnson crashed and finished 34th. At Talladega, the ride-around-at-the-back plan he and Earnhardt had pulled off so well in the spring backfired, and he finished 26th. He made up some ground by finishing second the next week at Martinsville, but it wasn't enough. With Stewart notching race wins in very Johnsonesque fashion, Five-Time couldn't make up ground. A mediocre run at Texas had him facing the end, which came the following week at Phoenix. The mistakes made over the course of this past Chase still leave Johnson frustrated.

"For me, I look at the contact with the [Busch] at New Hampshire. That was a decision I made in the car trying to get by him, and pushed too hard to make that happen," he said. "I look at Charlotte, I can't blame anyone but myself, because I'm driving the car there. I think as a group out strategy at Talladega, we just didn't execute well there. It worked fine for us in the spring and did not wok coming back in the fall. Those would be the biggest mistakes. Especially inside the car -- the contact with Kyle and then crashing the car at Charlotte, I hadn't done that in other Chases, and I can't do that going forward."

Jimmie Johnson: Notes-n-Nuggets

• Thirty-six years old from El Cajon, Calif.
• Finished a career worst sixth in Cup points in his 10th season.
• Only driver to make the Chase all eight seasons.
• Only won twice in 2011, fewest wins in a season in his Cup career.
• Only led the standings following one race in 2011 (Atlanta).
• Two wins in 2011: Talladega and Kansas.
• Fifty-five career wins is tied for eighth all-time with Rusty Wallace.
• Season Numbers: Two wins, zero poles, 14 top-5s, 21 top-10s, 1115 laps led, two DNFs, finished on the lead lap 29 times, average finish of 11.9, 15.3 during the Chase
• Five-time Cup Series Champion (2005-2010) and 2006 Daytona 500 winner.

Are those mistakes correctable? Johnson thinks so. "That was the thing I said all along -- if we lose the championship because we get beat, that's one thing. If we beat ourselves, that's another. And I feel that we beat ourselves this year," he said. "And that's something I need to really look hard at myself on, and Chad and the team, and make sure we don't do that again in the future."

Watch all of Johnson's highlights from 2011 and flip through his year in photos below: