You'd almost expect Jimmie Johnson to jump on the hood of his No. 48 car, dig his fingers into the seams on either side, and dare you to pry him away. Or chain himself to the B-pillar. Or plop down on the asphalt in front of that dark blue Chevrolet and force you to move him aside.
After all, the current version of the Sprint Cup race car has been very, very good to him. Johnson has recorded most of his 58 race victories and all but one of his series championships in this vehicle, which is being replaced beginning in 2013 with a model that will be lighter and bear more similarities to the passenger cars sold by the respective manufacturers involved in NASCAR. It's a major change, one that ramped up this week with a two-day Goodyear tire test at Martinsville Speedway, the next step toward the next generation of car that will debut in the Daytona 500.
It would be understandable if Johnson, of all the drivers in NASCAR's premier series, had the toughest time saying goodbye. Thirty-five of his career race wins came in this version of car, as have four of his five championships. His rise to the top of North America's biggest racing circuit coincided with the implementation of what used to be called the Car of Tomorrow, a vehicle that proved much safer than its predecessor but also presented major challenges to the competitors tasked with driving it.
Beginning in 2013, it will be a vehicle of yesterday. The most frightening part of the transition to the new car? It's not the growing pains that may accompany its evolution. It's the fact that Johnson seemingly can't wait to get behind the wheel.
"I like change," he said during a break in testing, which concludes Wednesday. "I think change is good for the 48 [team] and for Hendrick Motorsports. In the big picture, the sport is trying to work on the passing to make it better for the fans in the stands and the people watching on TV. So I think things are directionally correct, and I'm for it. And we like new challenges. We get to a point with the car and the rules being as tight as they are, we can't do anything else. We're just sitting there like, wish we could play in some area and develop something on the car, but we can't. So I like change."
Scary words indeed for anyone who might have wondered if the introduction of the 2013 vehicle might somehow mean starting over for a driver who has won more than anyone else in NASCAR's top division since breaking through as a rookie in 2002. It's a reasonable theory, given all the success Johnson has enjoyed since the current car was first rolled out at Bristol in the spring of 2007, particularly in light of current events. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus seem ahead of the curve on this vehicle once again, given the yawed-out rear end that resulted in a victory at Indianapolis two weeks ago, and a dominant performance in Sunday's weather-shortened event at Pocono that went for naught after an accident on what proved the final restart.
Every other team in the garage area is once again trying to figure out what the No. 48 is doing, making it feel a little like old times. Whatever advantage Knaus might have found, though, is guaranteed to go away following this season's finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, when the current vehicles become obsolete and teams turn to revised versions featuring new front ends and character lines specific to each manufacturer. But here's the catch -- if recent history is an indication, the changeover to the new car will work to the No. 48 team's favor.
It certainly seemed that way last time, when Johnson won 10 races and his second consecutive championship in a 2007 campaign in which teams juggled two kinds of vehicles, the current car and its predecessor. What was then the "new" car was rolled out over 16 races, and Johnson won six of them, dominating favorite tracks like Martinsville, Dover, and Phoenix. It was a chaotic season that demanded adaptability and adjustment, and no team did it better than the No. 48. Granted, times have changed and fields are deeper and Johnson is coming off the lowest points finish of his career, a sixth-place result in 2011. But in recent weeks, the Lowe's car has once again seemed like a shark in the water. Johnson's history speaks for itself. Rather than ending the Age of Jimmie, the vehicle changeover might very well start a new one.
In fairness, though, he's not alone. Top drivers understand what NASCAR is trying to do with the 2013 model -- make it lighter to improve competition on the race track, and make it more manufacturer-specific to help sell more passenger cars on Mondays. And like Johnson, they thrive on the prospect of change.
"I'm not concerned about losing anything in the transition," said Ford driver Carl Edwards, who nearly won last year's championship in the current car, and claimed nine races in it in 2008. "I think the more change on a technical side, if they changed things every week, that would suit me very well. I really like change. I like going to a new track. I like having aerodynamic changes and tire changes. Those things are a lot of fun, because it's like everyone is going to a new event and it's who can figure it out the quickest, and that's something I've always enjoyed."
Even the new look of the vehicles has drivers jazzed up. "It's definitely exciting to see what the manufacturers can come up with, especially this time around," Martin Truex Jr. said. "These guys have had a little bit of area to work in, more so than last time around, I feel like. The cars are all going to look a little different. Our car looks awesome. I think you're going to see that where the manufacturers have an edge here and there, I think. So it's going to be kind of exciting to see who comes out of the box with the big guns and can get up front and run really good out of the box. I'm excited. I know the guys at Toyota Racing have put a lot of effort into the 2013 car. Hopefully it will come out of the box strong."
Running well from the beginning may very well play a key role in determining the champion of a season in which every team will face a learning curve. Few handle those kinds of situations better than Johnson, whose track record indicates he will remain formidable -- even in a vehicle other than the one in which he's enjoyed most of his success.
"Sure, I can be selfish and be like, 'No, for the 48 ....' But those days are long gone," Johnson said. "It's what's best for the sport. And I know that we rise to the occasion when there are new challenges."
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
- Jimmie Johnson