Jimmie Johnson a marked man -- again
The issue of stopping Jimmie Johnson has gone from a wish in recent years to a movement now.
Armadas are gathering, bent on outworking and outrunning the 48 team, denying the best branch of Hendrick Motorsports a sixth straight championship.
"They want to take us down," Johnson acknowledged the other day. "I love that challenge."
Team owner Richard Childress first laid it on the line during the NASCAR media tour in January.
"This is the year to kick Jimmie off that throne," Childress said. "We were close with Kevin [Harvick] last year, but this is the year to do it.
"And it's going to be RCR, I feel certain. I'll make that prediction."
Pressed, Childress wouldn't back off, just played with words a bit: "I didn't guarantee it. I just said we were gonna do it."
In command of another armada, owner Jack Roush put the bent a different way: "I feel the best about this season that I have for any year that I've been racing, in 22 years [of fielding a NASCAR team]."
That must be a pretty good feeling to a man who has won championships both ways, under the old system with Matt Kenseth and the first Chase with Kurt Busch and who pressured Johnson mightily with Carl Edwards in 2008.
Within the flagship team at Joe Gibbs Racing, "We've got everything in place," said Denny Hamlin, the driver who challenged the 48 team down to the final race of 2010. "All my key personnel we had last year -- no changes there. The pit crew is the same. The driver will be a little better."
Mike Ford, Hamlin's crew chief, feels his outfit is as battle-seasoned as they come.
"We've been through the situation," Ford said. "We've been in the Chase the last couple of years, last year in particular. We've learned how difficult it can be. I think that's probably the most intense Chase that there's been.
"We were a strong part of turning that pressure up. So to a degree I think our team somewhat set the bar for the intensity level of that Chase.
"And I think they're very, very poised," Ford concluded, "to get the job done no matter what."
Told of Childress' public gauntlet-flinging, Johnson smiled.
"I hadn't heard it. But I know that Childress, Roush, Penske, Gibbs -- I mean, we set the mark. I didn't have to hear that to know what's on their minds, what they want to do
"We are that focal point for them. I'm sure we're the motivational tool "
Sounds like Johnson is enjoying being a target more and more.
"Yeah, I am," he said. "I guess as time goes on, I'm more and more comfortable with it."
As for Johnson's human dynamo of a crew chief, Chad Knaus, "I don't care," Knaus said flatly. "If they're worried about us right now they're doing the wrong thing. They need to be worrying about what they've got going on."
Still, Knaus couldn't help answering Childress: "Man, bring it on. If they've got it, come on. They [RCR] did a great job last year. There's no discounting what they did last year. I really enjoy racing with them. It's a lot of fun. And I look forward to the competition."
But Knaus wouldn't even acknowledge any satisfaction in being a target.
"I think if you gloat, or revel in that at all, I think whenever the day comes that we're not the primary focus, I think it would hurt too much."
And that day will come, this year, Childress asserted.
"I got that gut feeling this is the year," Childress said -- but it's more than his gut. "I just know how hard everybody's worked this winter. I know how prepared our whole company is."
At Roush Fenway, Edwards came on so strong in his nine-win season of 2008 that the media roundly picked him to stop Johnson in '09. But the whole team slumped, and Edwards went winless that year and on into '10.
But after winning the finale at Homestead last November, Edwards said then and maintains now that "we're better off going into this season than we were going into 2009."
At the end of '08, "I knew our momentum was waning as we went into 2009," Edwards said. "Now, finishing the season the way we did, the reasons we won were that our engine was better, the engineering was better, the setups were better, Bob [Osborne, his crew chief] and I were working together better, and the pit crew was better.
"Those are real legitimate reasons to run well."
As for media predictions, though, "I still stand firm," Edwards cracked. "Don't pick me for a damn thing."
Roush's problems of the past two seasons began with faulty simulation software -- critical since NASCAR banned on-track testing -- acquired from third-party vendors.
Now that has been replaced to Roush's satisfaction, leading to resolution of chassis issues. And Ford's FR9 engine, after fitful development, has finally come to fruition.
"I don't think I've got an engine deficiency," Roush said, "I don't think I've got an aerodynamic deficiency, I think I've got great people and I'm sure we've got great drivers."
All told, "There is not anything that has been a problem for us in the past, anything that we've seen in NASCAR's rules that we have not addressed."
Hamlin said JGR won't make the same strategic mistake as last year -- making itself vulnerable to technological leapfrog by standing pat with what has already proved successful.
"I know it's not going to be good enough," he said of the technology that took him to a series-leading eight wins last year, including two of the last five.
"We were extremely successful at the end of the 2009 Chase. We started 2010 with that same stuff, and we were OK. But when we started evolving things in the middle of last season, that's when we started winning races. And then by the end of the season, when we had our new stuff, it was even better.
"So we know that you've got to change continually," Hamlin said. "You can't stay in one place or else you're going to get passed by a lot of guys."
So the stop-Johnson movement hurtles full-speed ahead, perhaps more intense than ever since his runaway began in 2006. Whether they can pass the 48, "we'll have to go out there where the rubber meets the road and see," Roush said.
But Knaus won't stand still.
"I don't worry about what people do, and I don't worry about what people say," Knaus said. "I worry about what we've got to do."
And that, if he's going to be a target, is to make sure it's a moving target -- a target moving away.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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