News & Media

Championship rut? Johnson wants to go back

January 29, 2012, Mark Aumann,

Added time off after 2011 season only intensified five-time champ's desire

Without the obligations that come from being a NASCAR champion, Jimmie Johnson spent more time during the offseason with his wife and 1 ½-year-old daughter. It also allowed him to correct a mistaken impression that "December only had two weeks in it."

"It was a tough loss because I feel we had the equipment but the people didn't do the job. And we kept beating ourselves. "


That's an understandable error, given that Johnson had five consecutive Decembers in which he went directly from the Sprint Cup banquet to a constant and unyielding barrage of sponsor meet-and-greets, media availabilities, photo ops and celebrity whistle stops while someone else did the Christmas gift shopping.

Home-cooked meals can be a welcome change from chicken dinners on the road. But Johnson wants his fans to know that even though it was fun to let Tony Stewart enjoy the hubbub that goes with being champ, he really wouldn't mind getting back in the same old rut in 2012.

In all seriousness, during his free time Johnson has spent much of the past seven weeks trying to figure out what went wrong in 2011 -- and how to fix it before the season kicks into gear next month at Daytona.

"I started racing at 5 and I've probably won seven or eight championships, so there's a lot of losing years in there," Johnson said. "When I look at 2005 -- before our run started -- we had a tough loss that a lot of growth came from.

"This wasn't necessarily a tough loss because we were close. It was a tough loss because I feel we had the equipment but the people didn't do the job. And we kept beating ourselves. So there is a good lesson in last year. And I think -- I know -- it's going to make me stronger and this team stronger. And hopefully we won't make the same mistakes twice."

Johnson is of the opinion that you learn more from failure than from success. And he plans to put that to the test this season.

"When you're winning, it's easy in a lot of respects," Johnson said. "When you have tough moments -- moments which you're not proud of, make mistakes, whatever it is -- I personally learn a ton from all of those situations. And there were mistakes made last year in the Chase, and I'm learning from them."

After dropping to 10th in the points after an 18th-place finish at New Hampshire to start the Chase, Johnson finished second at Dover and won at Kansas -- giving many people in the garage area the uneasy déjà vu feeling of "here we go again." But Johnson finished 26th or worse in three of the final seven Chase races and became a non-factor.

"When I look at Dover and Kansas -- and the amount of points we gained on the leaders and put ourselves right back in the thick of things -- man, it felt like everything was coming together," Johnson said. "But we had a bad race at Charlotte, then Talladega didn't work out with the strategy. And we started losing momentum then."

And what had been Johnson's strength during his five-year championship run -- his unerring consistency -- was what instead propelled Tony Stewart to the title.

"I feel like at points in the Chase we did things right. And then at other points, we didn't," Johnson said. "It's being consistent over those 10 weeks that pays off.

"You look at the flip [side], Tony -- before he entered the Chase -- said he would waste a spot in the Chase if they made it. Well, they put together nine incredible, off-the-chart races. They did the unthinkable."

Team owner Rick Hendrick made it clear during NASCAR's preseason media tour: In addition to a 200th Cup victory, he expects nothing less than all four of his teams in the Chase and a championship trophy. But that's nothing that Johnson hasn't heard before.

"There's always pressure here," Johnson said. "When you walk in and sign on the dotted line to be a Hendrick driver, you're assuming a ton of pressure. The great thing is, Rick gives us all the tools to go out there and do our jobs. You've just got to go out and do it.

"There's a ton of pressure. It might seem like none, coming from him. But every driver and crew chief here is capable of dealing with that pressure."

So not only does Johnson face the challenge of returning to his accustomed place ahead of the competition, but the additional pressure of besting Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and newcomer Kasey Kahne with teammate bragging rights at stake.

"I think there's going to be a lot of good competition," Johnson said. "Jeff and I have had a few scrapes along the way, but that's been all good for us, even when we've had those little bumps.

"I think the competition that exists here is motivating and it's good competition. You do need a level of that. I'd be disappointed in my teammates or even in myself if I finished second to one of them and was happy about it.

"You need that competition, and if you can push each other, we're only going to make [ourselves] better."