New Chase, Same Old Jimmie Johnson

Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet SS that he will race in the 2014 Daytona 500. (HHP/Harold Hinson Photo)
Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet SS that he will race in the 2014 Daytona 500. (HHP/Harold Hinson Photo)

With the new format where the final four drivers in the Chase will enter the Homestead-Miami race tied for the lead it simplifies the tasks and the sport will finally be able to see Johnson race for the win in the season finale.

“We respond well to pressure,” Johnson said. “That’s one thing that the 48 has done a nice job with. First things first – we have got to transfer through the different segments, make sure we’re not eliminated and have a shot at it.”

And Johnson welcomes the change to NASCAR’s season and the format; confident that he will still be in position to tie NASCAR legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with a seventh NASCAR Cup championship in 2014.

“I still feel very good about it,” Johnson said. “When we look around at sports, everything’s changing. The Olympics look far different than they used to. The NFL is considering change. All sports. The world is changing. Our viewership is changing, so the sport has to change. I’m not sure if this is the exact thing, the right thing. Only time will tell. But I do support NASCAR and I do commend them on making a bold change and think that it’s – I know it’s going to bring excitement, especially those final 10 races.

“I still think there’s some more change out there that can be done. You can argue the first 26, what’s going on there. I think you can argue the overall premise that maybe there’s a little too much NASCAR at times. Maybe we race too many times, our races are a little long. I think there can be some format changes and procedure changes during the course of an event to kind of compact that.”

As a champion race driver Johnson understands the value in giving race fans more action and a more compelling storyline. It can help boost the television audience and the on-site attendance.

“We know it’s a major time commitment to come to the race track,” Johnson said. “You got a two-hour commute with traffic in and out, you have a five-hour event. That is just a daunting task for a lot of families. In my opinion, there are some other areas where we can work in as well. Kind of where the conversations were before this announcement came out.

“When change was to come, I felt like it would change in other directions and our process to crown a champion was going to stay intact, but it ended up being the opposite.”

First and foremost for Johnson, however, is a win in NASCAR’s biggest race – Sunday’s 56th Daytona 500. It is the first step in a grueling season before the NASCAR Chase Grid is finalized after the 26th race at Richmond in September.

“It’s been out of mind for sure,” Johnson admitted. “That could be due to the addition to the household. It’s very busy at home with two. So many parents with more than one kid tell me how much busier it was going to be. I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.’ It’s far busier than having one.

“There’s some of that, and the other part is I haven’t been in that mental space yet racing or competing. I think as the year goes on and if we are to make the Chase and get down to the race at Homestead, that’s when it will be top of mind. Right now it’s so far away, such a process to get there, I haven’t put much thought into it.”

It’s undeniable, however, that NASCAR Chairman Brian France’s bold move to change the Chase format will have a dramatic impact on the way the 2014 season is followed by fans and raced by the participants. It’s a move that will hopefully add some zing back into the sport and create a buzz that it needs to recapture.

“Brian’s made it clear: the success of this sport is on his shoulders,” Johnson said. “He’s going to make change and not be afraid to make change. Then we get into the way we crown the champion, that aspect. Definitely a bold move made. I’m supportive of the move and hope that it’s the right move.”

And in the end, the new format may see the same driver and team celebrating another NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title at the end of the season.

“We got the five in a row and I felt like we could maybe get up there to Richard or to Dale,” Johnson said. “Man, it’s so tough. It is so tough to do. I’m not taking it lightly or for granted. I wanted to see six come and then worry about seven. Now we’re here. Hopefully we’ll have another opportunity at it.

“I feel regardless of car or points system, we’ll be a threat. It would be nice to win one, two, whatever, with the new format.”