This isn’t the first time Jimmie Johnson will face an update in the competition model, but the driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet isn’t vain enough to think NASCAR would try to “Jimmie-proof” its playoff formats just because he keeps winning championship.
In the aftermath of the Monday night announcement of a stage-based race format and revamped playoff points system in all three of NASCAR’s national series, Johnson was the first driver to face reporters on Tuesday at the Charlotte Convention Center on the NASCAR Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“I’m not bigger than NASCAR,” asserted Johnson, who won his record-tying seventh championship in November at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “There’s no way they’re changing the rules based on the 48. The sport’s a lot bigger than one person.”
That doesn’t change the fact that Johnson has flourished with every competition update.
He won his first title in 2006 – the first of a record five straight – in a ten-driver Chase. A year later, with the Chase expanded to 12 drivers and NASCAR’s new Car of Tomorrow introduced for a portion of the schedule, the No. 48 team won again.
The 2008 season brought the full-time rollout of the COT (rechristened the Gen-5 race car) and Johnson won his third straight title. In 2009, the sanctioning body banned testing at tracks that hosted NASCAR races and introduced double-file restarts to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in June. Undeterred, Johnson was a four-time champion.
In 2010, spoilers replaced wings on the Gen-5 car, starting with the spring race at Martinsville, and Johnson ran his string of championships to five, overtaking Denny Hamlin in the season finale at Homestead.
By the time Johnson won championship number six in 2013, NASCAR had introduced the Gen-Six race car and had changed the Chase format to include wild cards for the final two positions, adding an incentive to win races.
Testing was reinstituted in 2013, but limited to four per organization. And Johnson won a 13-driver Chase after Jeff Gordon was added to the field summarily as reparation for race manipulation at Richmond by Michael Waltrip Racing.
Johnson’s seventh championship came under the 16-driver elimination format introduced in 2014.
To win a record-breaking eighth title, Johnson will have to triumph under a system that structures races in three stages and offers playoff points that carry through the first nine races of the postseason.
The good news is that the No. 48 team has always excelled at adapting to new rules and formats. In this case, NASCAR instituted innovations after extensive input from industry stakeholders.
“When you get to Homestead, it’s very similar for that event,” Johnson said. “How you get there is a bit different. The big takeaway I have is, when you put all the smart people in the room and let everybody decide what it could look like and what it should look like – from TV, owners, NASCAR, driver representation – I think that’s a smart move.
“And I feel that, knowing our environment, knowing how to take the best from each of those folks in the room – the stakeholders – and come up with a system… I have a lot of faith in that.”
Johnson could have added with similar conviction that he has an equal degree of faith in his own ability to deal with each new competition landscape.