Talk of 8th Cup title doesn’t bother champ
Seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson embraces pressure, plus why each contender can win and predictions
Jimmie Johnson knew there would be no hiding from the pressure, no deflecting of the possible distraction of this monumental task.
So he embraced it. NASCAR is a sport in which the exploits of the utterly great have distilled to two the number of drivers held to the highest of regard. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt Sr. Seven championships each. No peers.
Or so it was until Johnson joined them, winning his seventh last season since making his debut with Hendrick Motorsports as a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver in 2002.
The pursuit for singular immortality had begun. And so Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus began speaking of it as much as striving for it before confetti had barely kissed the Homestead-Miami Speedway asphalt last November, affixed in puddles of beer and champagne.
Arguably the greatest driver in NASCAR history — regardless of whether he wins at least eight championships — Johnson still enters the playoffs as somewhat of an afterthought despite being the defending series champion.
His menacingly predictable spring flourish and summer plateau, marked by a general lack of speed (especially compared to the Toyota fleet), and startling lack of impressive statistics ensure that.
Johnson has three wins but just three top-five finishes and eight
top-10s and an average finish of
16.7 that was bested by 11 of the 16 playoff qualifiers. This does not compare favorably to the crushing excellence of regular-season champion Martin Truex Jr. — four wins, 10 top-5s, 17 top-10s and an average finish of 11.4. Neither do laps led: 1,646 for Truex; 188 for Johnson, none in the last nine races.
That should not be confused, Johnson said, with he and his team entering a depressurized postseason. Outside distractions, his team can repel. The internal radiation of expectation is ever present and, as Johnson details it, an asset.
“Pressure might be off on the public side, but what motivates me and what gets me in the car and out of bed and my team up early, that pressure for eight ... it’s been there the whole time,” he told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s not going anywhere. That’s what we deal with.
“Speaking of the frustration of the summer, you start spring so well, summer hits and we want eight so bad. We were thinking about eight … honestly, go back and watch the tape, we were talking about eight on stage in Homestead before we get the seventh trophy.
“So it’s been there, and the pressure we put on ourselves — no one is going to put pressure on us like we put on ourselves. We may be quiet in the public side, damn, we have a lot of pressure on ourselves to go get it.”
Johnson enters this postseason with much the same feeling of last year, he said, having won early in the season — three times in the first 13 races — to ensure his playoff spot before “the summer punches us in the face.”
Last season, Johnson won two of the first five races, entering the postseason in fourth place, six points back. However, he exploited his knack for late-season dramatics on a palette of tracks on which he has excelled — winning for the eighth time at Charlotte Motor Speedway and ninth at Martinsville Speedway — and advancing to the four-driver finale. He clinched the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway with his first win there after rivals Carl Edwards and Joey Logano wrecked in the final 10 laps. Johnson started that race from the rear of the field.
This year, Johnson commences the 10-race, four-round postseason in fifth place, 36 points behind Truex in a new points system that rewarded regular-season ability to win races and stages. Somewhere behind the gray-flecked beard and jovial smile, there must be some kernel of pressure for a driver who has absolutely dominated the most competitive epoch of NASCAR.
Neither Petty nor Earnhardt dealt with so many teams capable of winning races on a weekly basis. Johnson will turn 42 when the playoffs commence Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, has a young family and seemingly other things to do in the eventual future.
But with seven titles in the vault, to this day still proclaiming his wildest original ambition in the sport was to win one Cup race, much less his current 83, Johnson doesn’t exude a nervousness requisite for someone with time, talent or confidence leaking away.
And knowing those No. 48 Chevrolets need to be faster, there is the feeling, contrarily, that the things he has seen and done in winning championships can be wielded in pursuing the most consistently excellent drivers of the regular season: Truex and secondplace Kyle Larson.
“One thing our team has always been good at is dealing with highpressure situations,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know that I was capable of stuff that I pulled off, let alone other individuals on this team and the way this team works together. So that’s something I have really been proud of and have discovered as an elite professional or someone on top of my game in the Cup series and winning these championships.”
One can almost feel the rest of the field tremble a little.
Jimmie Johnson (left) celebrates his seventh Cup title in 2016.