AVONDALE, Ariz. – Can Jimmie Johnson do it again? NASCAR’s media corps predicted Johnson will win his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship this season in the preseason NASCARMedia.com poll. And that was before last Sunday, when Johnson raced his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to a second Daytona 500 victory.
Johnson has confirmed his stature as the driver to beat. But with 35 races remaining in the 2013 campaign, he’s just one of two dozen or so title contenders.
Only five Daytona 500 winners – Johnson, Jeff Gordon and NASCAR Hall of Famers Lee Petty, Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough – have gone on to capture the same season’s championship. Johnson was the most recent to achieve the feat in 2006.
Johnson hardly has stopped to take a breath since rolling into Victory Lane for the 61st time in his NASCAR Sprint Cup career. The Daytona 500 champion’s coast-to-coast odyssey includes stops in New York City, the ESPN campus in Bristol, Conn., Dallas-Ft. Worth and Los Angeles before wrapping up Thursday night in Phoenix.
“You know, I’m just enjoying this moment. This is a one-of-a-kind race. In the rush that follows, the notoriety that follows, it’s great for all of us. Chad (Knaus), Rick (Hendrick), the company, Lowe’s, Chevrolet. It’s just time to sit back and enjoy,” Johnson said in his Daytona 500 post-race interview.
“When we pull into the gates at Phoenix next weekend, it’s a totally different game, as we all know. We’ll enjoy this rush. If there’s some down points through the year, we’ll look back on this race and smile again.”
Johnson will do double duty this week, making a rare NASCAR Nationwide Series appearance in Saturday’s Dollar General 200 Presented by AmeriGas in the No. 5 JR Motorsports Chevrolet.
Phoenix has been one of Johnson’s best tracks as well as the place – last November – where his championship hopes began to unravel thanks to a tire/suspension failure and accident. On the plus side, he boasts four wins, 12 top-five and 15 top-10 finishes, a Coors Light Pole, average finish of 6.7 and a series best Driver Rating of 115.8.
Johnson’s last Phoenix victory came in the fall of 2009. He won in the Valley of the Sun in three of his five championship seasons – 2007-09. Johnson finished fourth in last spring’s Subway Fresh Fit 500, the second of three races run since the one-mile track was repaved and somewhat reconfigured.
The last driver to win the opening two races of the season was Matt Kenseth in 2009.
Johnson’s teammates at Hendrick Motorsports may be his toughest competition on Sunday. Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne have won a combined five Phoenix races. HMS is the all-time Phoenix winner with nine victories.