Regardless of his victory on Sunday at the Atlanta Motor Speedway one thing has remained the same Jimmie Johnson is not in favor of the NASCAR point system.
Much to the delight of winning five consecutive championships from 2006 to 2010, then adding another in 2013, Johnson accomplished these feats in a 10-race post-season, with the driver producing the most points winning the title.
The last two years have come down to one race-- Homestead-- with four drivers having a shot at a title. In those two seasons, the No. 48 car has not been among the battle in the final race.
In 2014, it took two rounds to eliminate Johnson and co. from contention of a seventh title. However, in 2015, it was a five-dollar mechanical part in his drive line that took him out of contention of a championship at his best track, Dover.
Heading into that elimination race in Delaware, Johnson was fifth in the standings, 27 markers ahead of the cutoff. But on Lap 102, when that part broke, his hopes were shattered.
“The weirdness at Dover was a tough one to swallow,” Johnson told Speedway Digest. “Especially to be top three or five in points all season long and it all ended in that one race. But it’s part of it and I’ve not been a big fan of it, but what I am a fan of is full grandstands. Our sport needs to be strong and healthy and I’m willing to not worry what’s best for me and worry for what’s best for our sport.”
Though the six-time champion is willing to take a back seat to NASCAR in terms of the growth of the sport, obviously he still wants to be at the top of his sport. And at 40 years old, posting 76 career victories, he will go down on the Mount Rushmore of NASCAR drivers.
If he had gotten through Dover, advancing into the next round, he still had trouble at Charlotte the following week. Thus, he wouldn’t have made the next round of the Chase since he would have needed to record a victory and failed to do so at Kansas or Talladega.
With all of the accolades that Johnson has accomplished in his tenure at Hendrick Motorsports, what else is there to prove?
He has been outspoken about wanting to be triumphant with the new points system. To get to Homestead, he knows that he needs to maintain the pace that the team sets throughout the regular season.
It marks two consecutive seasons when the No. 48 team has clinched a spot in the Chase at the second race of the season. Now that he has qualified for his 13th consecutive Chase, Johnson knows that his team needs to keep up and not fall behind at all throughout the season.
“I think in 2014 we just didn’t have it, so that was on us,” Johnson said. “In 2015, I think we would have been one of the final four if we didn’t have Dover and the Charlotte thing.”
Even if it was a down year for one of NASCAR’s elite teams, Johnson still finished the season with five victories, 14 top fives and 22 top-10 finishes. But since NASCAR has gone to this new system in 2014, he has had the worst two points finishes of his career with a 10th and 11th.
There is reason to believe that the No. 48 car will be dominant again this season with a victory at Atlanta and leading 70 laps in the first two races. Last season Johnson led 558 laps all season long, which is the least since 2006 when he led 854, the last time he led under 1,000 laps in a season.
Even though he just tied Dale Earnhardt with 76 career victories, Johnson has just one goal for 2016.
“I look at it today and it’s such a different way to crown a champion than I won my six,” Johnson said. “My real goal is to be one of the four at Homestead and then it’s every man for them self.”
As he is just about every year, Johnson was one of the pre-season favorites to win the Sprint Cup title. Before the season began he was tied with Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth for second in Las Vegas betting odds of claiming his seventh Cup title, only behind Kevin Harvick.
If the odds were in his favor, then by Vegas standards he would be among the final four when it comes to the 36th and final race of the season. Much like people that bet on him, he also believes that Hendrick Motorsports will be tough to beat in 2016.
“This team is capable of amazing things, without a doubt,” Johnson said. “With what I’ve seen over the off-season, I feel not only the No. 48 team but all four cars at Hendrick Motorsports are going in the right direction.”
As the Cup Series heads to Las Vegas it is an opportunity that he has to pick up his second victory of the season and his fifth at the 1.5-mile speedway. With a win next Sunday, the No. 48 team will solidify itself as quite possibly the team to beat in 2016.
After seven races, the young NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is now well underway. The level of competition has proven to have been dramatically improved from a 2013 season in which NASCAR received much criticism for a lack of passing.
This year, there has been only one race which has had fewer passes for the top position compared to last year, and that race was Las Vegas with one less pass for the lead this year. Clearly, NASCAR's new aero package is working well. However, NASCAR wants parity, and they have that. But something is missing, and that is the reward for consistency - something that helped a driver win championships until this season.
Last season, there were seven winners throughout the first 10 races. However, it was not so much easier for a driver to dominate a race, but a car simply had a lot more speed at the front of the pack over racing for position which was a part of why there was a lack of passing.
Jeff Gordon, the four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, currently leads the points standings. It is the first time that Gordon has been atop the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings since the 2009 Coca-Cola 600 - 174 races ago.
NASCAR plans on awarding victories once the Chase for the Sprint Cup starts in September. However, just for the sake of an argument - what the heck happens if Gordon has a giant points lead with limited finishes outside of the top-10, but he has no wins? He would make the Chase, yes, but he would be put back a drop because he wouldn't have any bonus points from wins.
Fortunately, NASCAR's new championship format will actually benefit Gordon, or any other driver that is high in points, if they were not to have any wins at the time of the Chase cutoff at Richmond.
What NASCAR has done is actually great for the sport. A playoff based system that is being compared to the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament, or several other major sport's playoff formats for that matter, has entered NASCAR. If a driver finishes very well (without winning) during the multiple elimination rounds - a driver can win the championship.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Gordon's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, would have edged out their partner in crime, Jimmie Johnson, last season if this new system were in place. NASCAR has aimed for awarding drivers for wins, and that they are doing, but consistency still plays a factor. However, as long as a driver such as Gordon continues to run up front, they will get a win.
Through the first seven races this season, Gordon has five top-10 finishes, and no finish worse than 13th at Auto Club Speedway. He is showing everyone that even though NASCAR wants drivers to have wins to get into the Chase, there will likely be a handful of slots open to drivers that do not have wins. Having the points lead, or being within the top-10 at Richmond without a win should lock a driver into the Chase.
By then, most of the top-10 in points should have wins. However, there will be a few exceptions to that such as in 2013 where Clint Bowyer, Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch and Gordon did not have any wins come Richmond, but were high enough in points to continue on - competing for the championship in NASCAR's version of the playoffs.
Gordon has been extremely close to winning a race this year. He finished runner-up to Joey Logano at Texas due to a risky move by his crew chief, Alan Gustafson, and has led 67 laps to begin the year. Although there is room for improvement (as there always is in any sport), Gordon is extremely close to scoring his 89th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win.