For the first time since 2006, Jimmie Johnson arrives in Daytona as an also-ran, and for a guy who's spent the last half-decade carving his name into NASCAR bedrock, that burns.
Showing up for customary crack-of-dawn Media Day slot looking fit and relaxed, Johnson nonetheless seethes at how 2011 turned out: the "6" attached to his name turned out to be his season finish, not his championship number. And although Johnson didn't say it in so many words, there was plenty of blame to go around. "It's on all our shoulders," he delicately put it.
This time last year, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus were holding the equivalent of American Idol-style rotating pit crew auditions, with every team member's job only as secure as the next fumbled tire or lug nut. But Johnson enters 2012 with an established crew and a sense of purpose: to remind people that his run at immortality isn't over, just perhaps on temporary pause.
Over the offseason, Johnson and Knaus realized that they recognized too late a truth about all empires: what gets you there can't keep you there. The tricks and techniques that put the 48 team on top and kept them there for half a decade wore thin; other teams watched and learned. Johnson could hold off Carl Edwards in 2008 and Mark Martin in 2009, but he needed all the way until Homestead to run down Hamlin in 2010.
"Over the six years, we didn't change as much as we needed to, or evolve," Johnson said. "Chad and I were good at trying to reinvent ourselves, but now looking back at ourselves, we've gone to different depths, different levels."
And it wasn't just the 48 team falling short; it was others stepping up. "At the same time, the garage area has been extremely focused on what we've been doing," he added. "They caught us, and we got beat."
What changed? What kept the 48 team from Cup No. 6? For Johnson's part, the issue was communication. While he takes pride in his ability to diagnose a car from behind the wheel, he acknowledged that it's a skill you can't ever take for granted, and can't ever stop refining.
"How I provide information, what I'm looking at ... I felt like I was one of the most in-depth drivers out there [in terms of sizing up a car's needs]," Johnson said. "But because of the loss, I've been able to dig deeper and get away from the road map that we've built."
Combine that with the kind of drive that fuels champions when they get their butts handed to them — relatively speaking, of course — and you've got a serious threat Cup in 2012, so much so that the NASCAR media picked Johnson to edge Carl Edwards for the championship.
The only question that threw Johnson? Whether he was as nervous as he'd ever been last year when he realized the championship streak was slipping through his fingers. He paused for a long moment, acknowledging that he was probably more nervous his first year when he was trying to establish himself. But there was no doubt in his eyes ... he's every bit as hungry as he was back then. The message: don't ever count him out.