New format can help ease pressure in Jimmie Johnson’s quest for eighth title

Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, answers questions from the media prior to practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway on October 14, 2016 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Getty Images)

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new format in place for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship this year will help Jimmie Johnson keep his mind off what could be a monumental accomplishment.

Johnson notched his seventh title last year, tying icons Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for the series record. An eighth champion would put Johnson at the top of the pyramid.

“That’s a great opportunity,” Johnson said Wednesday during Daytona 500 Media Day at Daytona International Speedway. “I’m excited to have this opportunity.

“At the same time, there’s so much racing between now and Homestead, and the fact that we have to qualify for the playoffs and then stay alive in the playoffs helps take pressure off of me and our organization to do that right now.”

For Johnson and everyone else in the Monster Energy Series, the 26-race regular season will involve accumulating as many playoff points as possible by winning race stages under NASCAR’s new competition format and by winning the events themselves.

In addition, the top 10 drivers in the series at the end of the 26 races will get additional playoff points, with 15 going to the regular-season champion. There’s a lot for Johnson to think about before winning an eighth title becomes a real possibility.

“So we’ll just go racing and see what happens,” Johnson said. “I honestly … I have nothing to be ashamed of in my career, and I feel like I only have upside potential with more race wins and hopefully shots at championships, so I’m not going to put pressure on myself to worry about eight.

“If we get it, it’ll be one heck of a party. But until then, we’re going to have fun still.”

An eighth title isn’t the only milestone Johnson is chasing. His victory in last year’s championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway was the 80th of his career. The driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has averaged five wins per season over the last five years, and five more in 2017 would vault him past Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison into fourth place all-time.

Another 13 victories, and Johnson would tie former teammate and current car owner Jeff Gordon for third on the career list.

Whatever Johnson achieves this season, he’ll do so from a different perspective. He and wife Chani have bought a house in Aspen, Colo., in a deliberate move to reconnect with the outdoors.

“I grew up outdoors quite a bit,” Johnson said. “The way my family raised me with traveling around. My wife did, as well, and just through our adult lives so far, we’ve been pretty busy and not so tapped into the outdoors, and our vacations and trips to Colorado have kind of spurred the purchase of a home and us spending more time.

“And then for the offseason, we just felt like it would be a better way to spend time as a family unit. The experiences we’ve had together, the quality time we’ve had together, we’re trying to charge that battery as much as we can because the season is so demanding, takes a toll on us. That’s really the reason we’re there is just to spend more time together as a family, and the outdoors provides a great backdrop for that.”

Not that the seven-time champion hasn’t made fitness a priority over the years. He competes in Iron Man triathlons. On Sunday morning, before racing in the Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona, Johnson pedaled 42 miles on a bike.

“Scott Lagasse has championed a cause here in Florida for a lot of years to help raise awareness for cycling in the area and rider safety, and I think it was probably the third or fourth annual ride,” Johnson said. “It was cut a little short because we had to race later that afternoon, but well attended through the NASCAR drivers this year, which was really neat to see. …

“My suit is a little tight for some reason. I know I need to get on that bike and start running off some fat.”

Or he could shed a few pounds by carrying around his seven weighty series trophies—with the distinct possibility of an eighth on the horizon.

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