Johnson slumped spectacularly last season

Jimmie Johnson won four Sprint Cup races last year. He led 1,310 laps, a number exceeded only by champion Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski. He posted 11 top-five finishes, 20 top-10s.

For most drivers, that’s a spectacular season. In the Hendrick Motorsports shop that houses the No. 48 Lowe’s/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet, that’s a slump.

Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and their supporting cast have raised the bar so high that their 2014 season triggered a soul-searching offseason evaluation about where they misplaced their magic.

To which rivals must chorus: Give me a break! Some would insert an expletive before break.

If stock car racing fans and chroniclers perceive Johnson’s 2014 results as reason to chip away at a monument, chalk that up to human nature. Nobody stays on top forever.

But Johnson today is only 15 months removed from achieving his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup championship in an historic span of eight seasons, and almost all the elements that factored into that unprecedented dominance remain in place. Witness his victory at Atlanta last Sunday.

Denny Hamlin won the 2013 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway and, as the No. 48 bunch partied in their sixth championship celebration, observed, “Unfortunately, we’re racing in the Jimmie Johnson era.”

Hamlin unhesitatingly went on to call the 39-year-old Californian “the best that there ever was. He’s racing against competition that’s tougher than this sport has ever seen.”

Ardent fans of Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and even Johnson’s teammate, Jeff Gordon, obviously would leap into that debate.

True, Petty and Earnhardt share the record of seven Cup championships to Johnson’s six (and Gordon’s four). But none ever strung together as many as three championship seasons, let alone the five Johnson achieved in succession beginning in 2006.

Indeed, more than a few observers maintain that NASCAR officials’ radical revision of the Chase for the Championship format in 2014 contained a subliminal agenda of making the title “Johnson-proof,” or at least more difficult.

Pose that notion directly to Johnson, as several did last year, and his reaction will be the most benign of smiles. Johnson is California cool. If he has any sharp edges, they’re well-concealed. Dr. Phil would be more likely to engage in a physical confrontation.

For the record, Johnson arrived on the Cup scene in 2002 and finished fifth in points. He finished runner-up to Matt Kenseth in 2003, runner-up to Kurt Busch in 2004 and fifth again in 2005 before launching that five-championship run through 2010. (Four of his 71 career victories have come at Las Vegas Speedway.)

Gordon, who first brought Johnson to Rick Hendrick’s attention, recalled a warning he issued while Johnson, Knaus and Co. still were trying to break through.

“They had come up short a couple times and I said, ‘Watch out! When these guys win a championship, they’re going to go on a tear,” he said. He had that pegged.

Championship No. 7 would not be a shock.

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