DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – When Jimmie Johnson won last year’s Daytona 500 it set the tone for his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship under the old Chase format.
This year, NASCAR has drastically changed the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship by putting an emphasis on victories over consistency and an elimination playoff format that will culminate with the final four drivers in a “first to the finish” championship battle in the season’s final race at Florida’s Homestead-Miami Speedway.
After winning a NASCAR record five-straight Cup titles from 2006-2010 and making it a “Six-Pack” of Cup titles last year, the drastic changes to the Chase could be construed as a way to stop Johnson’s championship dominance. But the two-time Daytona 500 winner and four-time Brickyard 400 winner doesn’t believe that is the case.
“I really don’t believe it in the bottom of my heart,” Johnson said of that theory. “When you look at you got to win, win in the Chase, that all suits the 48 team. That’s what we’ve done. The only catch is making sure we’re buttoned up in Homestead. The couple times we’ve needed to be, we’ve had the speed and been able to go down there and be competitive.
“I don’t see it as an attempt to stump the 48. I really think it’s to build excitement. I felt like there would be change. We were talking about it earlier. I didn’t know this would be the change. But we need to evolve. We need to change. Hopefully this is the right thing.”
Johnson realizes if he wins the his third Daytona 500 on Sunday and his second Daytona 500 victory in as many seasons he would automatically be the first driver in the 16-driver field that will make up the Chase Grid.
That may change the approach that some drivers and teams will do entering Sunday’s race at the 2.5-mile Daytona Int’l Speedway, but Johnson will stick to his proven formula.
“I still think the way you win a championship is the same – you’ve got to win races,” Johnson said. “I think it builds more excitement with the fact that you’ve got to win the transfer, there’s that elimination process that works its way down.
“It certainly will change for some people. We haven’t talked about it amongst the 48 team. We’ve always felt, especially when the wild card program came in, if you were to win one or two races you could play for a while. As you get close to September, we always believed you had to fine tune and be done with major concept changes and really pick your package and refine it.
“In 2005 we thought we were real cute and smart and locked in early, had a big points lead, did all this experimenting and kind of lost our way and got confused when the Chase started and it backfired on us.
“We prefer to have a package and move forward at that point. But the start of the year, you just got to be open to it. If you’re off, you’ve got to go test, you have to go work. If you’re on and competitive, you can probably be a little patient and preserve your test sessions. It’s going to be an ever-changing and evolving process.”
While the quest to win the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup title has been altered by the new format it still plays into Johnson’s favor. Since the Chase began in 2004 Johnson has won 24 of the 100 races contested in the Chase – more than twice as many as his nearest competitor in the final 10 races of the season.
Of the 10 races in the Chase, the one he has never had to win during his six Cup titles is the season’s final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. In most cases Johnson’s lead entering the final race of the season was large enough that all he needed was a mid-pack finish to clinch.