Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports is counting down the top 20 drivers of the 2012 season, as predicted by the Yahoo! Sports NASCAR staff – Jay Hart, Jay Busbee, Nick Bromberg and Geoffrey Miller. The countdown will conclude Feb. 17 with the unveiling of the No. 1 driver.
No. 1: Revealed Friday, Feb. 17
2011 finish: 6th
Our 2012 predictions:
• Jay Hart: 1st
• Jay Busbee: 3rd
• Nick Bromberg: 3rd
• Geoffrey Miller: 2nd
Crew chief: Chad Knaus
Offseason action: There wasn't much, except for a new dark blue paint scheme.
2012 outlook: For the first time in four years, Jimmie Johnson does not come in at No. 1 in the Yahoo! Sports Top 20 Countdown. Apparently having the "worst" season of his career means he's more vulnerable than ever.
Let's take a look at how terrible 2011 was for him:
• 2 wins, his 10th straight multi-win season
• 14 top 5s, second most in the Cup Series
• 21 top 10s, second most in the Cup Series
• 1,115 laps led, second most in the Cup Series
If you're sensing a bit of sarcasm here, it's intended, because 2011 would have been a very successful season for anyone other than Johnson.
The most disappointing aspect of Johnson's five-year Cup championship reign coming to an end, at least from an observer's perspective, was that he was out of contention well before the season finale. It was inevitable that his run would end at some point; it would have been more dramatic had someone taken it away from him at Homestead rather than it ending because of a self-inflicted wreck in Charlotte or because of poor strategy at Talladega.
No doubt Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards outshined Johnson in the 2011 Chase, but make no mistake – Johnson provided some help. His ill-advised and totally unnecessary attempt to pass Ryan Newman at Charlotte put him in the wall and eventually on the ropes; his lay-back strategy at Talladega completely backfired. For five years, Johnson skated through the Chase virtually mistake-free. Not so in 2011.
"The thing about this championship that bothers me in missing this opportunity is – I know that we had the equipment to win the championship with. We didn't execute," Johnson said in January. "I said at the start of last year, if we just get beat, I'm fine with that. But I think in a way we beat ourselves this last season."
If winning five championships in a row sapped away any motivation, how 2011 ended surely refilled Johnson's and crew chief Chad Knaus' tank. Their unprecedented streak is over, but their quest to catch Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt at seven championships is not.
Point of interest: There are five tracks left on the Sprint Cup schedule where Johnson has not won: Michigan, Kentucky, Watkins Glen, Chicagoland and Homestead-Miami.
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