Jimmie Johnson's focus on the Cup last fall left his team behind the pack in '08, but now the champ is rolling
OVER THE last two seasons Jimmie Johnson has been as sure a thing as any figure in sports, a closer of victories as reliable as Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera in October or Tiger Woods on Sunday. Johnson has won back-to-back Cup titles, taken a series-best 15 checkered flags since the start of the '06 season and finished in the top three in 38.4% of those races—another circuit high. But this season Johnson has been far from his dominating self. In the first five races he didn't take a single checkered flag, and heading into Sunday's Goody's Cool Orange 500 in Martinsville, Va., he was buried in 13th place in the standings.
The cause of Johnson's slow start can be summed up in three words: lack of preparation—by design.
A Sprint Cup team, like a presidential candidate going into a state primary, must spend months preparing in advance if it hopes to win a particular race. Cars have to be built from scratch, tested in a wind tunnel and in the team's workshop and taken for mock runs on tracks that aren't on the Cup schedule but possess similar characteristics (in terms of shape, length and degree of banking) to those that are. It's a time-consuming, labor-intensive process, and while most Cup teams started preparing for the '08 season last fall (Roush Fenway Racing was particularly diligent, which helps explain why RFR Fords won two of the season's first three races), Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus didn't. Instead, they put their effort last fall into fine-tuning their Chevys to win on the five 1.5-mile tracks in the Chase for the Cup—cars, mind you, that are no longer in use because NASCAR switched to the Car of Tomorrow design full time this season.
"Our focus had to be somewhere last year," Knaus says, "and it sure wasn't on 2008." Indeed, last October, Johnson and Knaus skipped a Car of Tomorrow test session at Atlanta Motor Speedway that nearly every other Cup team attended. What's more, Knaus and his crew spent thousands of man-hours building a car that was tested in the wind tunnel (where it set a record for downforce, which on the track translates into speed through the corners) but was never raced in the Chase because Johnson and Knaus felt more comfortable with another car. "Maybe," Johnson says, "we spent a little too much time worrying about last year's championship."
Or maybe they didn't. On Sunday at Martinsville, Johnson flashed his old magic, leading for 135 laps and finishing fourth in spite of being spun out by Ryan Newman two thirds of the way through the race. Johnson's strong run, which propelled him to 10th in the standings, really wasn't surprising; no team in NASCAR has tested more in recent weeks than Johnson's number 48 crew, which since March 18 has made midweek treks to tracks in Rockingham, N.C., Fort Mitchell, Ky., and Nashville in search of speed. Knaus and Co. are clearly trying to make up for lost time. Based on Sunday's result, it appears they are on their way.
"There's a lot of wishful thinking going on in the garage right now when it comes to Jimmie and Chad," says Steve Hmiel, the technical director at Ganassi Racing. "People are praying that their time is over, but it isn't. They still have a huge organization backing them, they're still testing, and they're still the champs."
ONLY AT SI.COM Lars Anderson's Cup analysis and Mark Beech's Racing Fan.
Seconds after Denny Hamlin (right) cruised across the finish line in his number 11 Toyota Camry to win Sunday's Goody's Cool Orange 500 at Martinsville Speedway, he yelled into his radio, "Finally! Finally!" Hamlin was celebrating his first victory of the season, but he may just as well have been talking about Toyota's emergence. After 40 races in the Cup series, the Japanese manufacturer suddenly appears to be a full-fledged championship contender. The victory by Hamlin, who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing, is the second for Toyota in 2008, matching it with Ford, while Chevy and Dodge each have one W. In the standings Toyota drivers are now fifth (Kyle Busch), sixth (Tony Stewart) and eighth (Hamlin)—not bad for a manufacturer that failed to win a race in '07 and whose top driver finished 31st in points.
YES, VIRGINIA Number 48 led 135 laps and took fourth at Martinsville.
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