There Won’t Be No. 6, But Johnson Aims For Return To Title Glory
It’s ironic that in a world of loud engines and cheers from massive crowds, most hardcore racers deal with overwhelming disappointment in silence. Complete silence. There’s just nothing left to say.
As the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team returned to its Concord, N.C., shops from Phoenix, it’s a good bet there wasn’t very much said during the five-hour return flight home.
It’s likely that those preparing Jimmie Johnson’s Chevrolet for the final race of the 2011 Sprint Cup season at Homestead-Miami Speedway were pretty quiet as well.
Their reign as champions came to an end late Sunday after five consecutive seasons, in part because of some heartbreaking late-season finishes, capped by a 14th-place run in the desert. In short, 68 points out of the lead is an insurmountable number to overcome.
Since 2006, they’ve seen Johnson sit center stage in New York and Las Vegas during NASCAR Awards Ceremonies - and the spotlight was trained on them.
It must sting when they think back on the phenomenal success they’ve enjoyed and how a sixth straight title will not happen. For some members of the team, they’ve known nothing but how to be crowned the champion.
But, in the blink of an eye, the ultra competitive Sprint Cup division provide a large dose of humility.
Johnson was feeling it in Phoenix.
“Yeah, I’m definitely disappointed that we won’t be able to go to Homestead and race for our sixth championship, but that’s motorsports,” Johnson said dejectedly. “It’s a very tough business. What we did over the last five years was absolutely spectacular and I’ve just got to thank Lowe’s. I’ve got to thank Hendrick Motorsports, Chad Knaus (crew chief), and this whole race team for giving me everything they’ve had these 10 years.
“Even though we’re not in position to win the championship now, we’re going to go to Homestead and try to have our best race down there so that we can finish as high as possible in the points.”
This will be the first time in half a decade that Johnson can go to Homestead-Miami Speedway without the incredible pressure he’s routinely felt during the week leading up to final race of the season. It a way, now that reality has set in, Johnson may enjoy the new feeling.
“Yeah, I’ll definitely have more fun and get a lot of sleep going in there,” Johnson said. “I’ll bet you the No. 99 (Carl Edwards) and the No. 14 (Tony Stewart) won’t. I’ll have fun watching from the sidelines.”
As the saying goes, “Some days are diamonds-some days are stones.” Drivers and teams often define their days in those terms depending upon chassis set-ups, tire wear and the ability to dodge the crazy crashes on the track that seem to come out of nowhere.
When defined, Johnson’s run at Charlotte, Talladega and Phoenix fit more into the stone category. As time goes by, those races will be deemed places where the downfall began.
“Yeah, we were really, really far off,” Johnson said about his run at Phoenix. “We kind of had that in practice and throughout different points of the weekend. Unfortunately we just couldn’t get the car balanced right.
“As a whole, if you look at our Hendrick cars, unfortunately we all struggled. The only Hendrick affiliated car that did any good was the No. and the rest of us looked like mid-packers all weekend long.”
During so many magical seasons, Johnson usually left Phoenix upbeat and in position to take the crown, almost as if for the asking.
His team appeared flawless on most days, and the days when problems arose or gas needed to be saved, it overcame and logged incredible finishes that both amazed and baffled fellow competitors, the fans and the media.
This time, Johnson left Phoenix feeling something he hadn’t felt since 2005 - the pain of knowing this year’s Sprint Cup trophy would not be his.
When asked if his Sunday evening would be spent in deliberate thought, Johnson said, “It might be. There’s definitely disappointment. I think that will be the emotion I deal with first.
“And then over the off-season, I’m sure it will kick in some. I’ll reflect then, but still, in order for us to be where we want to be next year, we’ve got to work very, very hard during this off-season to understand what’s up and that’s not going to make it all that relaxed.
“So I’m up for the challenge. This team is. My guys work so hard and we’ll learn and grow from this.”
Johnson isn’t thinking about how his championship reign will be analyzed and studied by the motorsports media in the years to come. Right now, there’s nothing further from his mind.
But he’s an athlete and knows that, in sports, every good thing must come to an end at some point in time. There’s one more battle to fight in Florida before he can finally look at the good and bad about his 2011 season.
“I’ve been racing 30 years, shoot, 31 years and I’ve won probably two other big championship along the way,” Johnson said. “So, seven out of 31 years is normal. What we did over the last five years is abnormal. And now we’ll get a taste of normalcy.”
What’s needed now is for Johnson, Knaus and theentire crew is to spend some well-deserved time with their families, enjoy a peaceful Thanksgiving and Christmas season and ultimately feel the sun on their faces at Daytona International Speedway during Speedweeks in February of 2012 – with the hope of second five-year dynasty.
“We’ll definitely learn,” Johnson concluded. “To be on top for as long as we have takes a lot of effort to maintain. It just takes a lot out of you.
“So this winter will be a nice winter to unplug and relax and really look internally and dissect the different areas of the race team, and what we do, and come back stronger.
“I’ve always learned more from tougher moments and by no means is this a tough moment. Yes, the streak is gone but we’ve still got a shot at a top-five in points and that would be a big year still.”
Eloquently spoken by one of NASCAR’s greatest champions.