Jimmie Johnson likes new Chase format, but misses the one that brought him six championships

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If NASCAR ever decides to go back to the old non-elimination format that we saw in the Chase for the Sprint Cup from 2004 through 2013, Jimmie Johnson wouldn’t mind.

“I would be foolish to like any other format than the one in which I’ve won six championships in,” Johnson said during this past week’s NASCAR Media Tour. “I’ll be honest. Call a spade a spade.”

But Johnson still supports NASCAR’s decision to shake up the Chase format with the introduction of the three eliminator rounds and a final four championship round.

“When I sat down and talked with NASCAR and looked at the viewership and attendance spikes, all the excitement that was going on about our sport, especially towards the end of the year with the playoff system we had, it was all showing a very positive side.

“I want what’s best for the sport. It’s easy to sit here and pick things that work best for yourself. But at the end of the day, I love this sport, want it to be around for a long time and just want what’s best for the sport.”

Johnson and the No. 48 team didn’t advance as far as they would have liked in the new Chase format — they failed to get past the second elimination round — due in part to preparation, something that was the team’s hallmark in all six of its championship seasons (2006-2010 and 2013).

“I don’t think we did our job as a team last year and I think that’s where we got beat,” Johnson said. “(It was) not by equipment: the 4 car (Kevin Harvick) won with the same equipment. It’s what we did as a team.

“… We didn’t have the best year, period, so I don’t think the system changed in the way the champion was crowned would affect the year of the 48.”

Sure, Johnson won four races and had 11 top-five and 20 top-10s in 2014. But in the end, he finished a career-worst 11th place in the final season standings.

“When I look at this format on paper, especially how the 10 races break down, we usually win a race in the year (Chase), we usually win at certain tracks and those tracks all give me an opportunity to transfer through the rounds when I look at my strongest tracks,” Johnson said. “So the first blush when I was told about this in the fall of ’13 going into the ’14 season was I thought, ‘Man, this is going to fit the 48 great.’”

Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way.

With so much attention given to teammate Jeff Gordon’s retirement announcement and Chase Elliott as his replacement, the move of Carl Edwards to Joe Gibbs Racing and many other storylines, Johnson was practically a forgotten man during the media tour.

For those who may have forgotten, Johnson still has won six championships and 70 races in his Sprint Cup career. He entered 2014 hoping to tie the record for most championships won by a driver in a career, shared by NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.

As it turned out, Johnson came up short.

“Honestly, it’s because of the format,” Johnson said. “You can dominate the regular season. You can win the first round of (the Chase) what’s the first goofy name of the whole thing? Challenger Round? What’s the second goofy name? Contender Round? And not be one of the final four at the whatever round. I’m just trying to manage my frustration throughout the course of the year.”

Even though Johnson and none of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates advanced to the championship round last season, Johnson is a good company man. As long as the new format boosted the sport, its popularity, attendance and TV ratings, Johnson is all good with that.

And he’s still intent on winning championship No. 7 in 2015.

“I’m putting on the what’s-best-for-the-sport hat,” he said. “And if this is better for the sport, I’m in. I want our sport to succeed. But again, I won six championships with a different format, so I’d much rather see it go back to that, but I’m for this. I’m not a selfish person.”

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NHRA: Antron Brown takes major step toward team ownership

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There will come a day that when three-time NHRA Top Fuel champion Antron Brown wants to talk to his boss, he’ll need to look no further than in the mirror.

The New Jersey native announced Tuesday that he has begun to lay the groundwork to own his Top Fuel team, eventually branching out from Don Schumacher Racing.

“It’s definitely exciting, but at the same time, it’s also nerve-wracking because the buck stops here right now,” Brown told NBC Sports. “Now the coolest part is you get to help and drive and motivate and push the team forward, to make decisions and leave a legacy behind for my family.”

Brown will continue racing for DSR this season while beginning the transition to eventual sole ownership of the new AB Motorsports in the future. Even when he officially leaves the DSR camp as a hired driver, Brown and his new team will retain a technical partnership with the Schumacher organization.

Moving toward team ownership is just a natural evolution for Brown, who previously ran his own Pro Stock Motorcycle team from 1998 until joining DSR in 2002. It’s also a move that potentially may lead other current drivers to start thinking about their own futures.

It’s no secret that many of the biggest names in drag racing – both drivers and owners – are getting up in years. John Force will soon turn 72, while Schumacher is 75. They’re among several others in the sport who are making contingency plans for their teams to continue to operate once they’re gone – and Brown wants to do his part to help the sport grow and flourish.

“When you’re able to have ownership, you’re looking at the talent coming up,” Brown said. “You’re able to reach down and see and give other people opportunities that you had. When I came to race for Don Schumacher at DSR, he’s given all these people at his place this opportunity to drive.

“But what happens when the Don Schumachers, the John Forces, the Connie Kalittas go? You lose all the owners of our series, so who’s next in line to take over that lineage or carry that torch? It’s a necessary means for the future for the upcoming people.

Antron Brown’s plans to become a team owner were embraced by his current team owner, Don Schumacher. (Getty Images)

“I’ve been in this sport for over 20 years. This is the next evolution of my chapter, the next page of my book. What am I going to do when I decide to hang the helmet up one day? I want to be there to bring that new crop of drivers and talent up and help mold them to be the best version of themselves to carry the sport forward and to share with them what was shared with me over all my years in the sport, from Kenny Bernstein, John Force, Big Daddy Don Garlits, Mark Oswald and Don “Snake” Prudhomme, all the people I looked up to.”

While Brown will start as a single-car team once he transitions to ownership, he hopes to eventually build AB Motorsports into at least a two-car operation, with his Top Fuel dragster and a Funny Car.

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The path to eventual ownership began nearly a year ago when Brown and Schumacher discussed the future.

“Me and Don had a heart-to-heart talk,” Brown said. “When I told him what I wanted to do, Don said, ‘Antron, I know this is what you want to do. I’ll support you in this.’

“That’s a cool experience when you have a gentleman that has done everything in this sport, from over 350 national event wins, 17 world championships – and I’ve done three with him – and is in every motorsports hall of fame there is.

“What is he going to do next? He’s making the sport better by pushing people like myself to do what I’m doing now. No matter how long it takes, I know I have him on my backside, pushing me to get to that point.”

Like father, like son: Antron Brown and son Anson, who is following in his father’s drag racing footsteps. Photo: Antron Brown’s official Facebook page.

His family’s future also figured into Brown’s decision. His oldest son, Anson, soon turns 16 years old and is heavily involved in NHRA’s Jr. Dragster program, as are Brown’s other children. It’s likely his son some day will follow in his father’s footsteps.

But don’t think that the elder Brown, who turns 44 in March, is ready to hang up his firesuit just yet.

“I’ll stop driving when I feel I’m not capable to drive no more and I’m not having fun no more,” he said. “That’s nowhere in the near future. I know I’m going to drive for at least another 15 years.”

Heading into this season, Brown will retain current sponsorship from Mac Tools and Toyota, as well as associate sponsorship from Hangsterfer’s on his 11,000-horsepower dragster. Global Electronic Technology also has signed on as a new associate sponsor in a multiyear deal.

“It’s no secret this has been a goal of Antron’s for a while now, and I’m happy to be able to provide the tools and resources needed for him to be able to successfully branch out on his own,” Schumacher said in a team media release. “It’s important for me to see my team members grow.”

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Brown burst upon the NHRA scene atop a Pro Stock Motorcycle in 1998, earning 16 wins over the next 10 seasons. He joined DSR in 2002 and made the switch to Top Fuel in 2008.

Since then, Brown – who now resides in suburban Indianapolis – has gone on to become one of the winningest drivers in Top Fuel history with 50 national event victories, as well as three championships between 2012 and 2015.

That performance recently earned him AutoWeek magazine’s Top Fuel Driver of the Decade.

Brown also announced Tuesday he is reuniting with former crew chief Brian Corradi, who returns to the team after spending the last two seasons as co-crew chief for 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force. Corradi will share crew chief duties for Brown with NHRA veteran Mark Oswald.

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When he won his first title in 2012, Brown became the first African-American world champion in Top Fuel history. He hopes his move to ownership will continue to grow NHRA’s already significant focus on opportunities for minorities and females in the sport.

“I think it’s important across all spectrums, period,” Brown said. “I think a lot of fans see me, and they can relate to me because I am them. I came from a good, hard-working family in Chesterfield, New Jersey, which is right next door to Trenton.

“Everybody in my family from my great uncles to my grandpop made their own way, had their own businesses, from swimming pool to paving to septic tank businesses.

“One thing my grandpop said to me is the world is wide open. He said, ‘Son, you can have anything you want in this world, as long as you put the effort and put the work towards it.’ If people can resonate with my story from where I came from and where I’m heading, I hope it gives them this energy, this ray of hope that ‘if Antron Brown can do this, so can I.’

“That’s the only way for motorsports to grow. It’s for the young ones to get interested in it and I want them to know the opportunity is there. All they have to do is take it.”

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Brown will be among more than 30 Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers who will take part in this weekend’s annual preseason “spring training” test at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, in preparation for the season-opening Lucas Oil Winternationals Feb. 6-9 in Pomona, California.

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