Top NASCAR stories of 2014: No. 9 – Jimmie Johnson falls short of seventh championship

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MotorSportsTalk will be counting down the top 20 stories of the 2014 NASCAR season over the month of December.

Here’s what we’ve done so far:

Today, we’re at No. 9 — Jimmie Johnson goes from consideration as the Greatest Driver of All-Time to the worst single-season finish in his career. …

When Jimmie Johnson ended the 2013 season with his sixth Sprint Cup championship, numerous media members and fans began calling him the G.O.A.T.

As in the Greatest Of All Time driver.

With the way he won his sixth Cup crown in eight seasons, it seemed almost like a given that Johnson would win No. 7 in 2014, thus tying him with NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most championships won by a driver.

So many folks seemed to be convinced Johnson would breeze through the season – even with the new Elimination-style format of the Chase for the Sprint Cup – that they half in jest (or seriously, depending upon your perspective) suggested that NASCAR scrap the season because Johnson was going to win the championship anyway.

But as it turned out, Johnson did not win the championship.

In fact, he wasn’t really much of a factor in the championship. Why, he didn’t even advance past the Competitor’s Round and into the Eliminator Round.

Even worse, he recorded the worst single-season finish of his career, 11th place.

What happened?

There’s really no right or wrong answer. It was simply not in the cards for Johnson to win the title in 2014 – much like it wasn’t in the cards in 2011 when Tony Stewart won, or 2012 when Brad Keselowski won.

It’s not like Johnson forgot how to race. Remember, he won three races in 2014, and had it not been for mistakes, mishaps or simply coming up short, he probably could have won at least two or three more.

Some speculate that Johnson and his No. 48 team just didn’t have the intangibles that they had during their six prior championship-winning seasons. But trying to figure out what those intangibles were is equally a mystery as to why Johnson ultimately faltered in his quest for No. 7.

You really can’t point at any one thing. The motivation was there, all the key players – including crew chief Chad Knaus and his veteran pit crew – were all there.

Johnson didn’t change either. If anything, he became a stronger individual – both literally and physically – as he increased his physical training for things such as marathons, triathlons and more. It would be hard not to say Johnson wasn’t in the best shape of his life in 2014, so it wasn’t a matter of fatigue or lack of endurance.

Honestly, boil it all down and Johnson’s failure to win a seventh championship and coming up short essentially winds up with one conclusion:

It just wasn’t his year, plain and simple.

That doesn’t mean 2015 will be his year once again. He may go through another season that’s overall good, but not great like his championship-winning campaigns.

Racing in general — and NASCAR in particular — is a very cyclical business. Some seasons are better than others, obviously. Many of us may have gotten spoiled by all of Johnson’s championships, including the five in a row from 2006 through 2010, one of the greatest achievements in all sports history.

Johnson knew he was in trouble in this year’s Chase when he started off the Contender Round with a 40th place finish at Kansas. He followed that up with a 17th place finish at Charlotte, but saw his hopes of advancing to the Elimination Round come to a screeching halt with a 24th place finish in the final Contender Round race (at Talladega).

Ironically enough, Johnson led nearly half (84) of the 194 laps in that ‘Dega race before falling back to the eventual showing he had.

In the end, like I said earlier, it just wasn’t Johnson’s year.

Now, 2015, that could be a whole different story. Maybe it all comes down to Knaus. He figured out a way for Johnson to win his six championships and maximize his advantage during the Chase.

If Knaus can work is magic again in the new elimination format, a few years from now we may be talking about Johnson not only winning a seventh championship, but maybe eight, nine or even 10 titles before his career is over.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

March 28 in Motorsports History: Adrian Fernandez wins Motegi’s first race

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While auto racing is an international sport, oval racing remains uniquely American. 

That almost always has remained the case since the inception of the sport, but in 1998, the citizens of Japan got their first taste of American oval racing.

Having opened the previous year, Twin Ring Motegi was built by Honda in an effort to bring Indy-style racing to the Land of the Rising Sun. 

Adrian Fernandez was the first driver to win at the facility, taking the checkered flag in CART’s inaugural race after shaking off flu earlier that day.

Fernandez held off a hard-charging Al Unser Jr to win by 1.086 seconds. The victory was the second of his career and his first since Toronto in 1996.

Adrian Fernandez celebrates with Al Unser Jr and Gil de Ferran after winning the inaugural race at Motegi. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

The race was also memorable for a violent crash involving Bobby Rahal.

Running third with 15 laps remaining, Rahal’s right front suspension broke in Turn 2, causing his car to hit the outside wall and flip down the backstretch.

Luckily, Rahal walked away from the accident without a scratch.

“The car was on rails through (turns) 1 and 2, and all of a sudden it just got up into the marbles, and it was gone,” Rahal said. “Thank God we’ve got such safe cars.”

The following season, Fernadez went back-to-back and won again at Motegi. The track remained on the CART schedule until 2002.

In 2003, Honda switched their alliance to the Indy Racing Leauge, and Motegi followed suit.

The track continued to host IndyCar racing until 2011 with the final race being held on the facility’s 2.98-mile road course, as the oval sustained damage in the Tōhoku earthquake earlier that year.

Also on this date:

1976: Clay Regazzoni won the United States Grand Prix – West, Formula One’s first race on the Long Beach street circuit. The Grand Prix would become an IndyCar event following the 1983 edition of the race.

1993: Ayrton Senna won his home race, the Grand Prix of Brazil, for the second and final time of his career. The victory was also the 100th in F1 for McLaren.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter