February 18, 2014 | By Bruce Martin
Johnson Looks To Go Back-To-Back In Daytona 500
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – When Jimmie Johnson won last year’s Daytona 500 it set the tone for his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship under the old Chase format.
This year, NASCAR has drastically changed the “Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship” by putting an emphasis on victories over consistency, and an elimination playoff format that will culminate with the final four drivers in a “first to the finish” championship battle in the season’s final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
After winning a NASCAR record five-straight Cup titles from 2006-2010 and making it a “Six-Pack” of Cup titles last year, the drastic changes to the Chase could be construed as a way to stop Johnson’s championship dominance. But the four-time Brickyard 400 winner at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway doesn’t believe that is the case.
“I really don't believe it in the bottom of my heart,” Johnson said of that theory. “When you look at it you got to win, win in the Chase, that all suits the 48 team. That's what we've done. The only catch is making sure we're buttoned up in Homestead. The couple times we've needed to be, we've had the speed and been able to go down there and be competitive.
“I don't see it as an attempt to stump the 48. I really think it's to build excitement. I felt like there would be change. We were talking about it earlier. I didn't know this would be the change. But we need to evolve. We need to change. Hopefully this is the right thing.”
Johnson realizes if he wins his third Daytona 500 on Sunday and his second Daytona 500 victory in as many seasons, he would automatically be the first driver in the 16-driver field that will make up the Chase Grid.
That may change the approach that some drivers and teams will do entering Sunday’s race at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway, but Johnson will stick to his proven formula.
“I still think the way you win a championship is the same -- you've got to win races,” Johnson said. “I think it builds more excitement with the fact that you've got to win the transfer, there's that elimination process that works its way down.
“It certainly will change for some people. We haven't talked about it amongst the 48 team. We've always felt, especially when the wild card program came in, if you were to win one or two races you could play for a while. As you get close to September, we always believed you had to fine tune and be done with major concept changes, and really pick your package and refine it.
“In 2005, we thought we were real cute and smart and locked in early, had a big points lead, did all this experimenting and kind of lost our way and got confused when the Chase started and it backfired on us.
We prefer to have a package and move forward at that point. But the start of the year, you just got to be open to it. If you're off, you've got to go test, you have to go work. If you're on and competitive, you can probably be a little patient and preserve your test sessions. It's going to be an ever-changing and evolving process.”
While the quest to win the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup title has been altered by the new format, it still plays into Johnson’s favor. Since the Chase began in 2004, Johnson has won 24 of the 100 races contested in the Chase – more than twice as many as his nearest competitor in the final 10 races of the season.
Of the 10 races in the Chase, the one he has never had to win during his six Cup titles is the season’s final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In most cases, Johnson’s lead entering the final race of the season was large enough that all he needed was a mid-pack finish to clinch.
With the new format where the final four drivers in the Chase will enter the Homestead-Miami race tied for the lead, it simplifies the tasks and the sport will finally be able to see Johnson race for the win in the season finale.
“We respond well to pressure,” Johnson said. “That's one thing that the 48 has done a nice job with. First things first – we have got to transfer through the different segments, make sure we're not eliminated and have a shot at it.”
And Johnson welcomes the change to NASCAR’s season and the format; confident that he will still be in position to tie NASCAR legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with a seventh NASCAR Cup championship in 2014.
“I still feel very good about it,” Johnson said. “When we look around at sports, everything's changing. The Olympics look far different than they used to. The NFL is considering change. All sports. The world is changing. Our viewership is changing, so the sport has to change. I'm not sure if this is the exact thing, the right thing. Only time will tell. But I do support NASCAR, and I do commend them on making a bold change and think that it's -- I know it's going to bring excitement, especially those final 10 races.
“I still think there's some more change out there that can be done. You can argue the first 26, what's going on there. I think you can argue the overall premise that maybe there's a little too much NASCAR at times. Maybe we race too many times, our races are a little long. I think there can be some format changes and procedure changes during the course of an event to kind of compact that.”
As a champion race driver, Johnson understands the value in giving race fans more action and a more compelling storyline. It can help boost the television audience and the on-site attendance.
“We know it's a major time commitment to come to the race track,” Johnson said. “You got a two-hour commute with traffic in and out, you have a five-hour event. That is just a daunting task for a lot of families. In my opinion, there are some other areas where we can work in as well. Kind of where the conversations were before this announcement came out.
“When change was to come, I felt like it would change in other directions and our process to crown a champion was going to stay intact, but it ended up being the opposite.”
First and foremost for Johnson, however, is a win in NASCAR’s biggest race – Sunday’s 56th Daytona 500. It is the first step in a grueling season before the NASCAR Chase Grid is finalized after the 26th race at Richmond in September.
“It's been out of mind for sure,” Johnson admitted. “That could be due to the addition to the household. It's very busy at home with two. So many parents with more than one kid tell me how much busier it was going to be. I'm like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.’ It's far busier than having one.
“There's some of that, and the other part is I haven't been in that mental space yet racing or competing. I think as the year goes on and if we are to make the Chase and get down to the race at Homestead, that's when it will be top of mind. Right now it's so far away, such a process to get there. I haven't put much thought into it.”
It’s undeniable, however, that NASCAR Chairman Brian France’s bold move to change the Chase format will have a dramatic impact on the way the 2014 season is followed by fans and raced by the participants. It’s a move that will hopefully add some zing back into the sport and create a buzz that it needs to recapture.
“Brian's made it clear: the success of this sport is on his shoulders,” Johnson said. “He's going to make change and not be afraid to make change. Then we get into the way we crown the champion, that aspect. Definitely a bold move made. I'm supportive of the move and hope that it's the right move.”
And in the end, the new format may see the same driver and team celebrating another NASCAR Sprint Cup title at the end of the season, and that is four-time Brickyard 400 winner and two-time Daytona 500 champion Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet team at Hendrick Motorsports.
“We got the five in a row and I felt like we could maybe get up there to Richard or to Dale,” Johnson said. “Man, it's so tough. It is so tough to do. I'm not taking it lightly or for granted. I wanted to see six come and then worry about seven. Now we're here. Hopefully, we'll have another opportunity at it.
“I feel regardless of car or points system, we'll be a threat. It would be nice to win one, two, whatever, with the new format.”
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