New Changes, Same Jimmie Johnson

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Knocking the Sprint Cup Champ From His Perch Remains a Tall Order

Jimmie Johnson's new nickname? Five-time. After this season it might have to be changed to six-time.

From perusing correspondence from NASCAR fans, it’s difficult not to come to a conclusion, or at least a suspicion, that the same fans who once suggested the sport was fixed…now…uh…want it to be fixed in order to prevent Jimmie Johnson from winning yet another Sprint Cup title.

Until Johnson came along, no one in stock car racing history had ever won more than three titles in a row. Johnson is bidding for his sixth straight. Not only does this drive his detractors to distraction. It undermines the very notion that NASCAR has never been more competitive. How can one driver dominating every year be evidence of parity? In 2010, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick gave Johnson a run for his (literal) money. Jeff Gordon gave it the old college try in 2007. When fans suggest that hope springs eternal, though, the emphasis seems to be on the “eternal.”

As 2011 begins, the likely suspects being rounded up to face yet another trial of Jimmie Johnson include Hamlin, Harvick and Carl Edwards, who ended 2010 with a pair of victories. Add the gifted but mercurial Kyle Busch, the aging Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, consistent Matt Kenseth, old school Greg Biffle and ancient Mark Martin, and the defense has a decent case on which to rest.

And the system has changed.

Johnson’s dominance shows no sign of letting up.Just as NASCAR abandoned a season-long format for the playoff-like Chase in 2004, it has abandoned a basic system of awarding points that has been around since 1975. Conspiracy theorists would be claiming it was changed to stop Johnson, but not many are since NASCAR’s conspiracy theorists tend to want it to happen. There’s no real evidence, either. At the time he announced it, NASCAR chairman/CEO Brian France said, “The fans have been clear, though, about one thing. They care about winning. They don’t want drivers to just be content with a good points day or a good run.”

Somehow, though, France’s simplified new system makes consistency, not winning, even more important. Moments after France contended the new system was geared toward winning, two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart promptly said he was glad it was geared toward consistency. “I think there’s been too much emphasis put on winning, versus teams have to work hard for 36 races, and under this format, we still have to win a championship by being good for 10 races,” he said. “I don’t think there should be too much emphasis put on (winning).” In each race, the winner will receive at least 47 points. The base is 43, and winning itself awards three bonus points. As it is impossible for a driver to win a race without leading a lap, the winner gets another point. If he also leads the most laps, the total would be 48. The base points descend by one, meaning that the last-place finisher would get one. If the last-place (43rd) finisher led a lap before retiring, he would get two points.

Previously, a race winner could receive as many as 195 points for a victory. The biggest difference is simply the value of each point. A point is worth about four times as much as before, meaning that, once the season starts, if a driver secured a points advantage of 25 points, it would be roughly equivalent to a 100-point edge under the previous system.
Despite the lack of wins, Earnhardt, Jr. is still the sport’s most popular driver.
The only real reward for winning is a back-door entrance to the Chase. The field will remain at 12, but only the top 10 will come from points. Two positions will go to drivers outside the top 10 with the most victories.

A year ago, this would have enabled Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman to make the Chase.

At the beginning of the Chase, winning is slightly more important in the seeding. Then, as now, the order will seeded on the basis of wins, not points. In none of the past five seasons has Johnson accumulated the most points during the 26-race regular season. Now a victory will be worth three points, whereas it was worth 10 in the past, but, since one point is now worth about what four used to be, the new bonus is worth 20 percent more. Though it’s more significant than before, over a 10-race Chase, it still isn’t much of an edge. Undoubtedly, the new points format will have unforeseen consequences. Undoubtedly, NASCAR has run the system’s mathematics based on the results of previous seasons. Undoubtedly, the change was based in at least some sense on the results of fan surveys and the like.

Looking at the overall picture, the new system isn’t much different from the old one. Leading the standings isn’t going to be very important during the regular season. The only real purpose of the first 26 races is being in the top 10. Winning only becomes more important for those who aren’t in the top 10. The new plan certainly isn’t going to keep Johnson out of the Chase. Once it starts, it’s the same old story, changing only in a proportional sense thanks to the scaling down of points being awarded. Johnson mastered the Chase format, and he’s really not going to have to tinker with his formula of success. Johnson was about as nonplussed as everyone else when asked about the changes.

“It’s still very similar to what we have now,” he said, “so, I think the premise, the concept, is still very similar. It’ll take a while to get used to it. It’s more of an attempt to make our points system easier to understand. “I know people expect me to react and think, oh, they’ve got to leave it alone, don’t change it. I don’t care what races are in the Chase (or) the format to win the championship. I couldn’t care less because I feel confident that my team will be able to win championships under any set of circumstances.” Harvick was the regular-season point leader last year and would have compiled more than Johnson under the pre-Chase method of determining the championship. He and his owner, Richard Childress, were more animated than most in discussing their pursuit of Johnson.

Busch’s success in the regular season hasn’t carried over into the Chase in recent years. At 52, Martin is still searching for his first Sprint Cup championship.
Regardless of how points are awarded, Harvick knows who he has to beat: the 48. Hamlin (#11) is viewed as a champion in waiting by many NASCAR observers.

“When you’re as hungry as our team is to try to accomplish what we didn’t accomplish last year, we didn’t change anything,” said Harvick. “I tried not to get out of my routines. I work out on the same days, I went and had my physical on the same day I did last year, and we’re doing the same things that we did last year. The only thing I did was change my phone code to ‘4848’ (48 being Johnson’s car number) so I don’t so I don’t forget who I’ve got to beat.”

Childress called out Johnson and, by extension, owner Rick Hendrick, who has won 10 championships overall in addition to the past five.

“This year is the year to kick Jimmie (Johnson) off that throne,” said Childress. “It’s going to be RCR (Richard Childress Racing).
I feel certain.”

Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus spent the offseason in the eye of a storm, unaffected by all that was swirling around him. Hendrick shook up every aspect of his organization except the team headed by Johnson, who was the only driver from the prestigious four-driver lineup – Gordon, Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. also drive Hendrick Motorsports Chevys – to win a race in 2010. The other three drivers have swapped teams and crew chiefs, meaning that Earnhardt’s team now shares a building on the Charlotte compound with Johnson’s. Gordon has moved out to share space with Martin. The other three drivers have new crew chiefs.

Meanwhile, with the man who has ruled the sport as if by divine right for five years, everything is in place. Hamlin, Harvick, Edwards, Gordon, Kyle or Kurt Busch, Stewart, et al., may finally put an end to the championship streak, but it won’t be because of any changes made to address the matter. The numbers may be new, but the way to defeat Jimmie Johnson is old-fashioned … and, quite obviously, very difficult.


 

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