Top 10 NASCAR Driver of the Year 2011:
17 September 1975
El Cajon, California USA
So - whatever happened to Jimmie Johnson in 2011? We're so used to the five-time Sprint Cup champion working his way diligently through the regular season, keeping his campaign ticking away under the radar until it was time to burst into life and clinch the title in the final ten-race Chase, that at first we didn't notice that anything was amiss with the sport's most successful driver of the modern era.
Even though he comfortably made the Chase as usual despite only the one win during the season (at Talladega in the eighth race of the year) the warning signs had nonetheless been there for most of the year. Johnson seemed less sanguine about the season, more assertive and aggressive, as though he knew that the competition was much stronger and closer to him this year and that the pressure was really on. The usually unflappable Johnson even ended up in an ongoing verbal spat with Kurt Busch, which seemed to get under the skin and rattle both drivers at the crucial point of the season going into the Chase.
Then the Chase itself - the moment when Johnson is usually supreme - unravelled for him, beginning with contact with Kyle Busch at New Hampshire and then an accident all his own doing at Charlotte. Even a return to Talladega - the scene of his only previous victory in 2011 - failed to deliver for him, and a botched strategy saw him stuck in 26th by the chequered flag. With Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards disappearing into the distance at the top of the points standings, not even a win at Kansas could repair the damage: there was nothing that Johnson could do except watch the prospects of a sixth consecutive title vanish before his eyes. His season was done, and for the first time in over half a decade he had to watch the Cup title get decided without his involvement.
"When that light went out after Phoenix, a huge weight was lifted off of me," said Johnson when he realised just how much pressure the thought of carrying on that winning streak had put him under. "Then disappointment set in, and other emotions started working their way in." The question now is whether the end of his unprecedented (and quite probably unrepeatable by anyone in the future) five-title run will take the wind from his sails in the future, or whether the disappointment of 2011 will re-fire his motivation and re-galvanise him next year. Johnson says he's already started major sit-down meetings with his Hendrick team to discuss what changes can be made in 2012, although one thing for certain is that no one is going to tamper with his legendary winning partnership with crew chief Chad Knaus.
Don't count Johnson out of roaring back to the top in 2012. But at the same time, this season has proved that he's only human after all and that he can indeed be beaten: so who will be next to try?
Top 10 NASCAR Driver of the Year 2011 results so far:
9. Kasey Kahne
10. Dale Earnhardt Jr.