A victory in the Daytona 500 has been a springboard to two of Jimmie Johnson's seven Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championships. Johnson is hoping that he can remount that springboard Sunday with another Daytona 500 checkered flag and eventually collect what would be a record-breaking eighth Cup Series title.
Johnson, 42, a native of El Cajon, Calf., drives the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Lowe's for Pros Chevrolet Camaro in the Cup Series and won the Daytona 500 in 2006 and 2013. Both years he also emerged as the Cup Series champion. He claimed his most recent Cup Series title in 2016, putting him in a three-way tie with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most career Cup Series titles.
"Maybe a win Sunday in the Daytona 500 can be a springboard to an eighth championship," Johnson said from Daytona this week, prior to his crash in Thursday night's duel race that forced him to go to a backup car for Sunday's race.
"Winning any of the marquee events like the Daytona 500 is so good for the morale. It's great for sponsors, all the different aspects that go into it. The one thing is just that the race at Daytona is pretty unique to itself. As the year progresses you race on different types of tracks that can lead to a championship crown. Daytona is just so different along with the rules package that goes with it."
Johnson is a sure Hall of Famer, having earned 83 Cup Series wins, 222 top-five's and 341 top-10's. Johnson suffered an accident on lap 127 of 200 in last year's Daytona 500, placing 34th.
If Johnson is to earn the Cup Series title he will have to have a much better year than in 2017, when he mustered three wins and only four top-five finishes in the 36-race Cup campaign. The last of those 2017 wins came way back on June 4 at Dover, the 13th race of the season. Johnson also had just one race stage win last season compared to the 19 authored by Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr.
"We all knew those stage points would be important and that stage victories would carry weight but Martin exploited that and did a great job with it so the whole industry is focused on that," Johnson said.
Johnson made the NASCAR playoffs in 2017 but was eliminated early and finished 10th in final points.
"We got off to a good start last year and unfortunately as the year went on we couldn't get the car to perform like we wanted to," Johnson said. "It was frustrating because we put so much work and effort into it but we just couldn't get there. So there were lessons learned throughout but at the same time the rules have changed for the 2018 season and the internal structure at Hendrick Motorsports has changed, as well as some new members on my pit crew. We have the new Camaro ZL1 to compete in this year so it's making it kind of easy to turn the page on last year and focus on building the fastest car for 2018."
Johnson has had a lot of newer developments thrown his way over the last few seasons. Just three years ago he could walk into the Hendricks Motorsports garage area and communicate with fellow team drivers Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kasey Kahne. What a difference a couple of seasons makes. Gordon retired from full-time driving in 2015. Earnhardt retired at the conclusion of last year and Kahne is racing for another team.
Gordon was replaced by Chase Elliott (age 22) while Alex Bowman (24) takes over this season for Earnhardt and William Byron (20) has replaced Kahne. Bowman will start the Daytona 500 from the pole. Suddenly Johnson is the elder statesmen of the Hendrick Cup Series camp.
"This team has really changed but fortunately for me and it might not appear this way from the outside but I've been working with and spending time with Alex and William both," Johnson said. "Alex has been our test driver and William I've known for a long time. We actually live in the same neighborhood. He's been in Junior Motorsports in their cars coming up through the ranks. It is new without a doubt but it's not as a much of a shock to me as it probably is to the outside world."
This season Johnson will drive the new Camaro ZL1 body style and the minimum ride height rule has been eliminated by NASCAR, meaning that teams can run their cars as low to the ground as they want. So far this week, Johnson had been handling the learning curve at Daytona during practice as well as last Sunday's Clash event.
Also, in a cost cutting move, NASCAR is allowing one less pit crew member over the wall during stops, making for a big challenge for the crews.
"We're going a lot faster at Daytona with the new rules," Johnson said. "At Daytona, the cars are almost a second faster a lap this year. We're on the limit for sure and it's brought a lot of new excitement driving these cars. I think it will help make handling more of a premium in Sunday's race. The new pit crew member rule has really put a strain on the over-the-wall guys. There's a lot to be done in a short period of time with one less guy. They'll adapt."
Johnson will be back at Watkins Glen International in August. The Finger Lakes region fabled road course is one of only three tracks on the current Cup schedule at which Johnson has failed to win.
Johnson has started off well in Cup races at The Glen, boasting a career race start average there of 7.6. His career average race finishing position of 16.25 at The Glen is another story. He placed 29th at The Glen in 2017, the final car on the lead lap.
"I don't know why I've never won at The Glen," Johnson said. "I've been able to run in the top-five and top-three but I just haven't had the pace to set myself ahead and win. I've got one pole there. I truly enjoy the track from a road course standpoint. It flows so well. The area is gorgeous. You usually find me on Saturday afternoon riding around the lake and wherever I can go there. Maybe this year I can turn things around and get a win."
Johnson says he has no plans to retire anytime soon stating "that if I ever get that eighth championship then I'll try for the ninth."