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|Jimmie Johnson's pit crews showed room for improvement last season.|
This story appears in the Feb. 20, 2012 "Rivalry Issue" of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!
THE RACER THEY call Five-Time smiles, shakes hands and politely answers questions at NASCAR Media Week in Charlotte. He's rested, focused and ready to start his 11th full Cup season. But deep down, Jimmie Johnson rages. And if prodded, he admits that yes, he's "very pissed off." People still call him Five-Time.
In finishing sixth in points last year, he snapped his record string of consecutive titles. "Yeah, Six-Time sounds better, doesn't it?" the 36-year-old says without a hint of a smile. "I didn't think the streak ending would be that bad. But it's bothered me more than I expected."
There were a couple of low points, like right before the season finale, when he and wife Chandra were shopping in Miami as the championship contenders' news conference took place. And at the year-end awards in Las Vegas, when he was escorted to a table on the floor instead of a seat onstage. "Times like those had my butt in meetings all off-season making lists of what we can do better."
Those meetings just made Johnson angrier because he realized he lost on a few fixable moments. "Give me another restart at Dover and Martinsville," he says. "Give me a half gallon of gas at Chicago or a few more feet of room at Charlotte. Or let me drop the hammer a little sooner at Talladega. Those are things I could've done differently."
In 2012, priority No. 1 is improving the 48 pit crew, which was fired twice last season. Too many times JJ fought his way to the front, only to leave Pit Road and have to claw his way back through the field. Says crew chief Chad Knaus, a former tire changer for Jeff Gordon's legendary Rainbow Warriors, "They know, just as I knew, they can be replaced."
Beyond pit row, the team refuses to show its hand. Knaus and Johnson are the longest-tenured crew chief/driver pair in the garage, and other teams have followed their formula. "Over the years, I handed our competition the road map," Johnson says. "Now I see them doing those same things to beat us. So yeah, we're going to do some different stuff this year. But hell no, I'm not telling you what they are."
Ryan McGee is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.