Matt Kenseth gave a rousing try, qualifying on the pole for NASCAR’s season finale last weekend at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. He led most of the race and finished a fighting second but in the end Jimmie Johnson was irresistible as he finished the race in ninth place and comfortably won his sixth Sprint Cup championship.
At 38, Johnson now is just one shy of NASCAR’s record of seven championships shared by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, thus earning an enduring place in NASCAR’s pantheon.
Johnson was the man to beat from Daytona at the start of the season and finished the year with a series of strong races, overpowering Kenseth in the stretch run. Johnson has arrived at the pinnacle among NASCAR’s greatest drivers yet there’s no swagger to the man. He believes his success has come from fierce motivation and hard work by himself, longtime crew chief Chad Knaus and their team.
“I know that it’s not going to last forever,” Johnson observes. “When you’re racing the best in the world, you’ve always got to push your game and your abilities to stay there. It’s just kind of a natural thing for myself and for all drivers who share that mission of trying to win a championship.”
Working with the right team
Johnson gives full credit to Knaus’s relentless work ethic and attention to detail. “From the team’s side, Chad’s desire and his passion for fast race cars really does it,” he says. “There aren’t really many areas to work on anymore. As Chad likes to say, it’s stacking pennies. You just continue to find a little bit here and a little bit there and keep stacking them and eventually it’ll turn into something.
Johnson and Knaus at Homestead
“I think that’s where Chad is different from others. There are times when he’s putting in all the hours and people are working in the wrong area and we miss the target. That happens but the majority of the time they’ll figure out the right area to find more speed from the car and dial it in.”
Johnson believes he’s a better driver than ever with many competitive years ahead of him. “I feel like a far better driver today than I was in my rookie year or from my first championship to my fifth. Experience is so helpful, useful and important in our sport. I remember saying that I would trade my age for experience any day and it really does make a big difference.
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“When you look at the generations before mine and look at the statistics of the average Cup driver’s age, many of them didn’t start until they were in their 30s. Look at the age Earnhardt was at when he won his last championship and the bulk of his championships and the same is true with Petty. It was all about experience and I feel that I’m much smarter, more focused and my talent is refined. Everything is much better today than in previous years.”
Ken Howes is Rick Hendrick’s vice president of competition and is in charge of running the four-car race team. Howes works in company with Hendrick’s president Marshall Carlson and Doug Duchardt, the team’s vice-president of development who runs the engine, chassis and body-building shops. Howes has been at the helm of the team since Jeff Gordon’s arrival more than 20 years ago. He’s worked with many drivers over the years and couldn’t be more impressed with Johnson.
“I think over time Jimmie just turns into more and more the complete professional race car driver,” Howes observes. “His dedication, the amount of time he puts into it, the amount of time he puts into his fitness, the way he works outside the car, his dealing with people, you couldn’t wish to be around a better person.
“There’s the old adage, ‘Good things happen to good people’ and I think that fits in his case. He’s just a genuinely good guy. He pays attention to his family. He does all the things you like to see in a person. To me, he’s just thoroughly professional at all times and I think that sets him apart.”
Leadership and adaptability
Howes says Johnson has an open mind as a driver and also provides strong leadership for his team. “His talent, obviously, and the experience he brings from his years of racing before stock cars, all of that gave him ideas to work on,” Howes commented.
“If a certain line is not working on a given day, or at a given race, he’ll change pretty quickly and search for another way around. If it’s not working, he’ll see what he can do and at the next round of pitstops he’s ready to do something different. He’s always ready to keep working, to keep searching.
“You’ve got to give Chad and the team credit. They do their job just as well as Jimmie does his, but Jimmie’s personality leads them and encourages them to do their best. He brings a great ambience to the team and that’s very important.”
Johnson has established himself in an unrivaled position as NASCAR’s greatest driver of the modern era. If he keeps marching forward, as he looks likely to do, he’s entirely capable of putting himself on the same level as ‘The King’, Richard Petty, and ‘The Intimidator’, Dale Earnhardt, as one of the greatest stock car drivers of all time.
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