Race Weekend Central

2013 Staff Preview, Part III: Does A Champ Need To Change?

As the NFL fades away this week, sports fans across the country turn towards the next big event on the schedule: NASCAR’s Super Bowl. After a three-month hiatus, Daytona beckons as the 38-week, 2013 schedule descends upon us.

But the Great American Race is the Great NASCAR Beginning, the start of a journey that takes us to Las Vegas, Pocono and nearly two dozen American locales in between. There’s plenty of unanswered questions about what’s to come, a year filled with changes from the Gen-6, to new qualifying, to new competitive rookies for the first time in over four years. So let us get you revved up once again; it’s Frontstretch season preview time, all week setting up not only the Sprint Cup season and the excitement of our coverage to come.

“2013 SEASON PREVIEW, PART I: IS THE GEN-6 NASCAR’s FIX-ALL”:https://frontstretch.com/tbowles/42266/
“2013 SEASON PREVIEW, PART II: WHAT CUP DRIVER HAS THE MOST TO PROVE?”:https://frontstretch.com/tbowles/42267/

Today’s Season Preview Topic: Jimmie Johnson has now gone two years without a championship after winning five in a row. Does the team need to change anything for 2013 or is it simply a case of bad luck catching up with them?

Tom Bowles, Editor-In-Chief: I’m sure many NASCAR-ites are reading this question and groaning. There’s no question Johnson, outside of his rabid fan base has become Public Enemy No. 1 for the old school crowd’s complaints about everything from the sport becoming too politically correct to a potential double standard amongst crew chiefs. But for Johnson, 2013 is a crucial year if he’s looking to inch closer to that iconic mark of seven titles. If you look at the careers of the men he’s chasing, Petty and Earnhardt once they hit their prime there were never huge gaps in between first place:

*Cup Series Titles*
*Earnhardt:* 1980, ’86, ’87, ’90, ’91, ’93, ’94
*Petty:* 1964, ’67, ’71, ’72, ’74, 75, ’79

Both men won a championship early on in their careers, hit a snag but then captured what used to be a spectacular amount of titles in a certain time span. For Earnhardt, it was six in nine years while for Petty it was five in nine. But then… after that, the hardware simply stopped flowing, years of close calls with no extra trophy to show for it. It’s a pain Johnson’s teammate, Jeff Gordon knows so well, once primed to break the championship record himself. At 2001, age 30 Gordo won four titles in seven years… and he hasn’t been back to the head table since.

2012 was certainly a step back in the right direction for J.J. after an off year; bad luck, more than bad cars were what cost him the title this time. Heck, at one point in Homestead, before that pit stop-turned-mechanical breakdown it looked like the No. 48 team was going to have Keselowski and Co. on the ropes. Johnson’s 1,744 laps led overall was the third-best total of his career; his 24 top-10 finishes actually tied a career high. So what needs to be done? Simple: crew chief Chad Knaus has to find a way to hold track position late in races. It seems like all too often, the No. 48 jumps out ahead only for the rest of the pack to catch up over 500 miles. That, combined with poor pit strategy and/or bad stops late in the game leaves Johnson in a vulnerable position when he shouldn’t be. Following that pattern, in 2013 I suspect the new car will give this duo an early advantage over the field — but can they hold onto it? That will be the key to title number six.

Some have claimed that with departures this offseason of two top engineers, Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 crew are on the verge of losing their focus. Will they turn back to champs in 2013 — or slide further down towards “chump” status?

Mike Neff, Short Track Editor: Whether Johnson needed to change anything or not, he is going to have a change on top of the pit box. The No. 48 team lost both of their race engineers during the offseason and will have two new voices in Chad Knaus’ ear on race day. The core of the championship team had been intact for nearly a decade, part of the reason they had achieved sustained success. Knaus noted during the Sprint Media Tour, though that a change in view can breathe new life into a team. A different perspective from the two seats next to Knaus might provide some adjustments in strategy, the kind of changes that ultimately will find you a little something that pushes the team over the top. In the end, Knaus and Johnson are still together. They went into Homestead with a chance to win the title again last year. It is yet to be seen if this new car agrees with Johnson, but a driver with his resume will most likely be able to adapt and excel once again.

Phil Allaway, Newsletter Editor: We’re talking about a team that would have won the title last year in Homestead (by virtue of winning the race) had two instances of bad luck not befallen them. There’s nothing wrong with the No. 48 team. Simple as that.

Jeff Meyer, Senior Writer: Really? This question firmly belongs in my “wtf is this question even doing here?” file. The Packers haven’t won a Super Bowl since 2010… maybe they should trade Aaron Rodgers! Or maybe Tom Brady needs to go away from the Patriots!

This very question implies that we should _expect_ J.J. and Chad to win it every year. The only thing more absurd than that is saying that Brian France has been the savior of this sport. In short, if they _do_ change anything, they are dumber than a ten-pound bag of stupid!

Amy Henderson, Managing Editor: Absolutely, the No. 48 team needs to step up to the plate this year with changes in how they approach a race from start to finish. In 2010, this team won the title. In 2011, it was largely mistakes on pit road and in the garage that caused Jimmie Johnson to stumble to the worst points finish of his career. In 2012, the pit crew issues were largely solved… but by then, the strategies that had worked in 2010 were all but obsolete. Time after time, Chad Knaus called for a solution that worked three or four years ago only to fall flat this time around. The team _has_ to catch up to several others in this area.

I’ll stop short, for now, of saying this team needs a change on top of the pit box, because Knaus is still one of the best if not the best in the game. But he does have to adjust his thinking to evolve with the way things are working now, because it became almost a vicious cycle at times last year: the team got behind on pit strategy and then seemingly couldn’t get the car quite right for their driver to race his way back to the front. Johnson, frustrated, would overdrive, and that led to a couple of mistakes on his part when he could ill afford them, like crashing on his own at Phoenix, a track where, in previous years, he was dominant. The No. 48 team had a whopping six DNFs in 2012 and a few other races where they lost the chance at a good finish due to a mistake. Simply put, that isn’t going to win Johnson another championship.

Beth Lunkenheimer, Managing Editor: Alright, so Jimmie Johnson now has gone two years without a championship … big deal. Sure, high expectations have followed the team that was virtually untouchable for five straight seasons before an impressive battle between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards knocked him off the top spot in 2011. Anyone ever heard of a little thing called parity? Obviously the No. 48 team nailed the CoT pretty quickly while others struggled to keep up before suddenly everyone was (almost) on the same page. But with the new Gen-6 cars, each team will once again have to learn to use the car to the best of their abilities, and you never know … this season might be the one that sees Johnson atop the rest of the field once again.

Brett Poirier, Senior Writer: The No. 48 team shouldn’t change a thing. Racing incidents in The Chase are why they fell short of winning titles in the last two seasons — along with two really fiery, determined drivers in Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski. In the last two years, Johnson has still been the most reliable driver in the garage to run at the front from week-to-week. The No. 48, five titles in hand is still the one to which all others are measured in the Sprint Cup garage.

Summer Bedgood, Assistant Editor: I wouldn’t call third and sixth in the standings the past two seasons “bad luck.” I would moreso make the argument that the competition has simply caught up to Johnson. No dynasty lasts forever, and this statement is doubly true when a team has a target on their back. With literally everyone in the garage area gunning for them, it was a statistical waiting game for the end of the No. 48 car’s record-setting streak. They’re not what I’d call “struggling,” though. With expectations so high, it certainly is shocking to see them so suddenly disappear from the immediate spotlight on paper. Let’s not forget, however, that Johnson was a serious threat to win the title last season right up until the final race of the season. That’s hardly struggling or bad luck — it’s just them coming close, then getting beat. Intuition tells me that they’ll be back again next year.

There’s one person on the No. 48 crew whose focus no one questions. But will Chad Knaus be able to bring back the magic to strategies that in 2012 often fell flat?

Tony Lumbis, Marketing Manager: The team absolutely does _not_ need to change a thing. The No. 48 bunch was right in the thick of things until a bead melted at Phoenix, after some would say Jimmie was driving too hard and a rear end gear broke the following week at Homestead. If the team was going to address what cost them the championship, they would need to oust the driver (just not going to happen) and/or switch parts suppliers. Crew chief/crew swaps happen when teams are in much more dire situations or simply flat. (See: Carl Edwards or Kevin Harvick in 2012, respectively.) Only one driver can win the championship and the most you can ask from your team is to be in position to win it at the end. When the Lowe’s team is out of contention year after year, then it’s time to consider change. Not now.

P. Huston Ladner, Senior Writer: Well, it’s not like Jimmie has been a failure the past couple years. The 2011 Chase has to be considered some kind of mulligan, but last year he still had a serious chance to win the title and at one point had put himself in that position during the Homestead race. Chad Knaus has got to be itching to show that he is still the premier crew chief in the garage, which should keep this duo at their common high level. The Gen6 car should give them another edge as part of Hendrick Motorsports.

But really, one has to wonder if Johnson isn’t racing’s version of Tom Brady. Once Eli Manning bested Brady in their first Super Bowl meeting, Brady hasn’t won a championship since. That very well may be the case with Johnson, who set a standard of excellence that few in the sport have ever approached. But all it takes a just little bit of a slip, with another blue-clad opponent (Brad Keselowski) and then it’s no more.

Brad Morgan, Senior Writer: Perhaps Johnson has finally lost touch with his uncanny ability in the clutch that has helped lock up countless races in recent history. While under extreme pressure from eventual titleholder Brad Keselowski, the five-time champion wrecked in Chase races at both Phoenix and in the season finale at Homestead-Miami.

Nonetheless, the blame can’t be placed solely on Johnson. Strange mechanical letdowns and rare pit road mishaps show that Hendrick Motorsports and the No. 48 team aren’t living up to the high standards that they have set for themselves.

Vito Pugliese, Senior Editor: Johnson hasn’t won a sixth title in two years? What unspeakable horrors must be occurring behind the doors of Hendrick Motorsports! Please, if this situation was any other driver or team, it wouldn’t even be a discussion. I seem to remember this talk was the same that followed their 2005 flameout when the title was first within their grasp. Had JJ not knocked the wall apart at Phoenix, we’d be talking about him joining the likes of The King and The Intimidator this year.

What other start athlete who has won multiple championships and contend for them is as roundly reviled and decried for not constantly performing? Nobody is calling for a shakeup in the New England Patriots organization, and the Indianapolis Colts were never going to clean house after Peyton Manning’s annual AFC choke job. The Broncos aren’t, either, so J.J. and Chad are fine. HMS was the team to beat when the first COT came out; I don’t see the Generation Six cars changing that much.

Danny Peters, Senior Writer: No, Johnson and Co. just need to keep doing what they’re doing. They were in it right until the end last year and there’s no reason to suspect they won’t be this year. When Jimmie hangs up his driving gloves, he’ll go down as one of the all-time greats of the sport and the partnership with Chad Knaus is a textbook definition of how the crew chief-driver relationship should work.

Kevin Rutherford, Nationwide Series Expert: Nothing needs to change at Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 team. Nothing. Johnson hasn’t won a championship in two years after a blistering five years, but he hasn’t been horrible, per se — after all, he nearly won the title in 2012, didn’t he?

This season will be a continuation of the form Johnson has shown for years. He will be solid for most of the year, racking up a handful of wins in the process. He will make the Chase, and once he’s in, his team will go into Superman mode and finish top three at worst; probably, they’ll win the title.

I realize it’s not much of a stretch in terms of predictions, but no one said one can’t go with what simply makes sense. And this does. Bad luck and Brad Keselowski are all that stands in Jimmie’s way.

Jeff Wolfe, Senior Writer: There may be some subtle changes to the No. 48 team, but nothing drastic needs to be done. Johnson went into the final race as the only driver that could catch eventual champion Brad Keselowski. While Johnson and his team haven’t won the title the past two years, they’ve also not been far off from winning. No reason to panic.

Matt Stallknecht, Senior Writer: The simple answer here is no. Considering the fact that Johnson was knocked out of contention of the 2012 title due mostly in part to unforeseen mechanical issues in the final two races of the Chase, it would be extremely unwise to shake up what is still one of the most formidable race teams in all of motorsports. If Johnson doesn’t smack the wall in Phoenix and blow an engine in Homestead, he probably wins the title, no? Johnson and Knaus are still at the very top of their game and proved last year that they still have the fire and ability to compete for a title.

Having said that, the No. 48 team has been notoriously less bulletproof the last three years than the four years preceding those; it’s fair to say that the team isn’t nearly as rock solid as it once was. But if “not quite as solid” still equates to five wins and 24 top-10 results in a season (as was the case in 2012) why mess with what is still a great thing?

Rick Lunkenheimer, Contributing Writer: The No. 48 team needs to continue exactly what they’ve been doing. While there have been times the Jimmie Johnson / Chad Knaus pairing has shot themselves in the foot, with basic calls and poor on-track decisions, they’re still competitive on a weekly basis. And being competitive is what has kept the duo in the Chase battles despite the bad luck they have faced. It’s not a question of if Johnson will win another championship but rather when he’ll get the job done once again. After all, both the driver of the No. 48 and his crew chief have proven they’re championship caliber over and over again … five times, to be exact.

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