Scott Fowler

Jimmie Johnson still wants to believe

Jimmie Johnson has been so good for so long that you have to grade him on a different scale from most other NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers.
Jimmie Johnson has been so good for so long that you have to grade him on a different scale from most other NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers. Getty Images

Jimmie Johnson turns 40 in September, and he is starting to hear some things he doesn’t like from the drivers who are close to half his age.

Laughed Johnson: “The thing that kind of hurts my feeling and is wild at the same time is when I meet a kid and he says, ‘I’ve been a fan of yours my whole life.’... I guess this is my 14th year (in Sprint Cup racing). That one really stings. I’m like, man, I’m that guy. Getting old.”

As the 2015 NASCAR season begins Sunday with its traditionally gaudy season opener at the Daytona 500, Johnson starts the season in a strange position.

No longer is he the prohibitive favorite to win the points championship. The six-time NASCAR champion finished a career-worst 11th in points in 2014, leading to some whispers that his best days are behind him.

From 2006-10, Johnson won an astonishing five consecutive championships. He once seemed a shoo-in to at least tie the sport’s legends, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, with seven total points titles.

But the pack has caught up to Johnson and his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet in the past four years. He did win one more title, in 2013, but he has also finished sixth, third and then that discouraging 11th last season despite four race wins. That would be a great four-year period for most drivers, but Johnson has been so good for so long that you have to grade him on a different scale.

Could Johnson win his third Daytona 500 on Sunday? Absolutely. He already won a 150-mile preliminary race Thursday night and will start The Great American Race in the No. 2 position, sandwiched in between Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

It is Gordon’s impending retirement after this season that has splashed Johnson in its wake with a wave of “So when are you going to retire, Jimmie?” sort of questions. Johnson and Gordon are neighbors in south Charlotte, as well as close friends. Johnson idolized Gordon, 43, when he was entering the sport, and it was Gordon who helped get Johnson a Cup ride.

Johnson said he’s not close to retirement, but he knows what would make him want to. Said Johnson: “If you’re in the racecar and you’re worried about getting hurt ... You stay out of harm’s way when you’re on the offense. If I start flinching and worrying about things, that’s a sign I need to get out of the car.”

In the car, though, Johnson sounds like he still has the same fire. “When you put on the helmet, it’s amazing what you forget about,” Johnson said. “You just get sucked into the moment and trying to pass whoever is in front of you.”

Last year, Johnson couldn’t get the same consistent speed out of his Chevy as he had for years. It was frustrating for him, he said, to see the No. 24 car (Gordon) and the No. 4 (eventual champion Kevin Harvick) “kicking our butts” most weeks. He and crew chief Chad Knaus made some changes on the No. 48 team in the offseason, trying to get it faster. Knaus has helmed all six of Johnson’s championships, but both of their contracts expire at the end of 2015 (although it is expected both will sign extensions).

The question is whether they can get the sort of magic back that led to those five straight titles. Johnson isn’t sure.

“Some may say lightning never strikes the same place twice, and I want to believe differently,” Johnson said. “I want to believe it can happen. You know, there’s no telling. Winning five in a row never happened before, for a very good reason. It’s just very difficult. The chances of it happening again I’d say are pretty low, but I’m going to believe. I’m going to keep trying.”

Johnson is a fitness fanatic, and in January he competed in a triathlon. As he rode his bicycle toward a traffic-control barricade, he blew past about eight police officers and kept going.

Only one problem: he was going the wrong way.

“To everyone’s surprise, I did miss a left-hand turn,” Johnson said.

He eventually turned around and got back in the race, but the error made him log some extra miles and miss his personal goal.

That, Johnson hopes, is the last left turn he will miss for awhile.

Starting in Daytona, it’s time to get back on the right path.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler

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