Eliminations prove challenging for Johnson – Nascar

Jimmie Johnson was relaxed, friendly and smiling a lot at the recent NASCAR Sprint Cup Series awards ceremony and festivities in Las Vegas.

He wasn’t, however, content or even mildly satisfied. The six-time champion has been feted and celebrated more than any other driver during his 14 years in NASCAR’s big leagues.

But his 11th and 10th place finish in the last two seasons  — a new format it should be noted — feels as unfamiliar to him as it is offsetting to the rest of us.

It was a surreal thing to watch NASCAR’s greatest current day champion humbly participate in Champion’s Week. Shockingly eliminated after the first round of NASCAR’s playoffs, it’s most accomplished active driver sat in the back row during the After the Lap event and didn’t even get to make a speech at the banquet.

He was in the interview room so quickly that it genuinely felt odd to be talking to Johnson instead of waiting to watch for his speech. But he left the reporters and photographers with an easy feeling to convey.

Of course, to say Johnson is highly-motivated is an understatement — because he always is.

“To win so early, have our mind on the Chase then get eliminated in the first round? Really” Johnson said, smiling. “We’ve been sitting here for eight months preparing for this moment then a very inexpensive part takes us out [at Dover], so definitely disappointed.

“There was some redemption at the end of the year with the victory [at Texas] and finishing in the top-10 in points was something we wanted to chase down and we got that done.

“We did end with momentum in the right direction, but certainly a disappointing year. I wouldn’t say I expect to be the champion, but I certainly feel I should be in the final four and not to get to that point was disappointing.”

It’s easy to understand why Johnson was so disillusioned.

His statistics last year – 14 top-fives (including three second place finishes), 22 top-10s and a pole position – were on par with his efforts throughout the last decade. And his five wins matched those of Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch as well as Matt Kenseth and they were second only to Joey Logano‘s six. Only Busch made the Championship 4 from that group.

The only remarkable difference for Johnson this year compared to recent seasons is his 558 laps led – about half what he normally leads. But his victory total was still among the series’ best.

“There’s been some years where it’s been a huge motivator [not to win the trophy] especially when you finish second,” Johnson said of his uncommon and unfamiliar ranking. “There’s nothing worse and you are one seat away from where you want to be.

“But this elimination deal it is the hardest thing to figure out — where you need to be mentally, what you need to do. Being eliminated so early it was kind of just like ‘gone that quick.'”

Johnson is the first to admit the new elimination round Chase format has been a learning experience for his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet team. And it hasn’t been what we’ve come to expect from a group more typically in the final fight for a trophy than not.

“The mental side is something I feel I’ve always been so strong at and the way you build through the year and refine for the final 10 (races) and finish strong. … and now that’s gone through the window,” Johnson said. “Now it’s kind of shoot from the hip and just go with it. It’s so different.

“With the old format, there’s a feeling that built through the course of the year and the first 26 races you kind of build that feeling then the elimination races start and there’s nothing consistent about it.

“It’s really tough to say ‘I’ve got that championship year, I can feel it,’ or ‘I can sense it’ because of the elimination process.'”

Some would say Johnson has only himself to blame — the first driver in history to win five consecutive Cup championships (2006-1010) –but winning a title has become a moving target with the championship format changes in recent years.

“This offseason is about trying to keep the momentum we had finishing out the year, spending time with family through the holidays and charging the battery the best I can so we can get going in the new year,” Johnson said.

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