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Johnson on a mission

Jimmie eager to climb back as No. 1 driver

By George Diaz, Tribune Newspapers

February 15, 2012

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Every driver is motivated. Every one believes he has a shot. Everybody is excited.

That's all hunky-dory. The 2012 NASCAR season has yet to start and the optimistic rumble from the garages always precedes the realistic rumble on the track, when the usual suspects rise to the top and the pretenders finish 28th or worse every week.

It's not hard to predict which guys will be chasing NASCAR championships in 2012:

Defending champion Tony Stewart has huge momentum after a thunderous finish in 2011. Carl Edwards is due to bust out of his Buffalo Bills-esque two-time second-place finishes. And somebody somewhere will predict that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will finally break free from the shadow of daddy dearest and win a title.

But there's a guy who is motivated, has a shot and is excited, and he should rise above the rest.

Say hello to your 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, Jimmie Johnson.

You should know the story. Johnson — accompanied by wing man/crew chief Chad Knaus — won five consecutive titles before losing their way last season. Johnson finished sixth, his lowest point since he began running full-time on the Cup circuit in 2002.

This year, expect him to find his way home: Back on the big stage in Vegas, celebrating another championship.

"I've spent a lot of time through the offseason thinking about the way I'm involved with the race team, the responsibilities I have, just the way I've gone about work for the last five years," Johnson said during a recent testing session in Daytona Beach.

"It's hard to argue with the last five years and what had happened. Last year was the sixth year and we didn't get the results that we wanted. But I felt like we were competitive in a lot of areas. Chad and I made some mistakes in the Chase and took ourselves out of it."

Look for them to be back in it. In all sports, the most dangerous competitor is a talented one who is motivated to succeed and redeem himself.

Johnson fits all that criteria.

"It's been a very good offseason for me to internalize some things and to evaluate what goes on from my standpoint and my involvement with the team and how good of a teammate and team member I can be for the 48 car, and I'm making changes," Johnson said.

"Even though I tried over the five-year run to not stall out and tried to continue to evolve and challenge myself and recreate myself, it's hard to do it.

"You have a road map that's working, and it's hard to get too far from it. This winter has been good for me to dive down and understand the areas where I feel like I can do a better job and be a better member of the 48 team.

"So I know I'm stronger and better today."

Yikes. Consider yourselves warned, everybody.

gdiaz@tribune.com