Johnson refreshed after easy offseason

Jeff Birchfield • Jan 27, 2012 at 10:26 PM

CONCORD, N.C. — Jimmie Johnson never realized being champion could be such a drain.

Failing to win a sixth straight Sprint Cup title, the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet was able to go through an offseason without all the extra appearances that go along with being champion.

“It’s been a great offseason,” Johnson said at the annual NASCAR Sprint Media Tour. “There’s a lot of obligations with being champion. To not have those, it freed up my time.”

Just as important, he was finally able to relax. There wasn’t all the extra pressure of trying to keep the championship streak going.

“I didn’t realize the pressure I was putting on myself to keep the streak alive,” Johnson said. “There was more pressure than I was aware of. I thought I was dealing with it well, but when that door closed, it was like a ton of weight off my shoulders.”

Still one of the Cup Series’ top performers, Johnson won two races and finished sixth in the points last season.

When it comes to returning to the top, Johnson said the key isn’t so much the mechanical aspect of the car. It’s more about everybody on the team doing their jobs to the best of their abilities.

“NASCAR has made the rules so tight,” he said. “The human element is far more important than ever before. It’s tough to keep an advantage for long. It’s really about the people.”

Car owner Rick Hendrick praised Johnson for his professionalism, adding the 36-year-old driver earns high marks for his work ethic and innovation.

It’s been well-documented how Johnson trains hard to be as physically fit as any driver on the circuit. He also started a habit of keeping a notebook to document every weekend at the race track. His habits have become standard practice throughout the garage area.

Johnson, who has amassed 55 career wins over the past decade, said it means he must find other ways to raise his game.

“I always to look at new ways to do a better job as the driver of the 48 car,” he said. “That’s what this offseason was about for me. It’s what the first half of the season is going to be about.

“I followed my own road map, which was talked about. People studied the 48 team and myself and they followed that road map. Through losing the championship, I think I can strip some layers down and learn to do things differently.”

Even for a driver as successful as Johnson, it’s always a challenge to stay ahead of the pack.

In his case, he doesn’t have to look far to see some of his toughest opponents. He has a trio of all-star teammates at Hendrick Motorsports — four-time champion Jeff Gordon, former Daytona 500 champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. and 12-time Cup Series winner Kasey Kahne.

The rivalry within the Hendrick organization has gotten fierce at times. It led to Johnson and Gordon airing hard feelings after hard racing at Texas and Talladega two years ago.

Despite the rift, the two drivers have remained close friends. Johnson added there’s always pride in being the best finishing driver for Hendrick Motorsports.

“The competition that exists here is motivating,” he said. “Even when Jeff and I had our scrapes, it’s been all good for us. It’s good competition. I would be disappointed in my teammates or even in myself if one of us finished second and was happy about it.”

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