Jimmie Johnson is not the defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion this season, and that hasn't been an altogether bad thing in his eyes.
After a disappointing sixth-place finish in the Cup standings in 2011, Johnson has two victories -- including one in May that gave team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th career Cup victory -- and 11 top-10 finishes in the first 15 races of this season. He enters this weekend's Toyota/Save Mart 350 fourth in the standings as he looks for his second victory at Sonoma raceway in three years.
Johnson won five straight Cup titles from 2006-2010, and the expectation last year -- from inside and outside the team -- was that he was going to find a way to win a sixth. But unlike in recent years in the Chase for the Cup, when Johnson and the No. 48 team turned it on and pulled away from the pack, any measure of consistency disappeared as he finished outside of the top 12 six times in the final 10 races.
"That pressure hurt us in some ways," Johnson said Tuesday, "but I think we've grown from that."
Johnson said he and crew chief Chad Knaus were putting unneeded pressure on themselves in 2011 to continue their historic stretch of domination. They spent some time together in the offseason to discuss why things didn't go as planned and re-evaluated everything within the organization.
"He's hard on himself," Johnson said of Knaus. "The best therapy for him was to work his guts out to try to make the team
Still, the 2012 season got off to an ominous start.
Not only did the team finish 42nd at the Daytona 500, but it also was hit with penalties by NASCAR for an illegally modified C-pillar on its car. The initial penalty was a 25-point deduction in driver and owner points and a six-week suspension for Knaus and car chief Ron Malec. But in March, NASCAR rescinded the points deduction and the six-week suspensions.
The restoration of the 25 points moved Johnson from 17th to 11th in the Cup standings. Apart from a 35th place finish at the Aaron's 499 at Talladega in early May, Johnson, with the help of two victories and four other top-five results, has all but guaranteed himself a spot in the Chase.
Because of the way he drove in the early part of the season, Johnson is able to be more aggressive in chasing victories and picking up valuable bonus points. Drivers receive three bonus points for winning a race and one bonus point for leading the most laps.
"We let some opportunities slip through our fingers, had a couple wins that got away from us," Johnson said. "The restrictor plate races (Daytona and Talladega) were frustrating, but going forward, our cars have had a lot of speed."
Johnson, 36, has reason to be confident going into Sunday's race in Sonoma, as he has qualified 12th or better and finished no worse than seventh each of the last three years. His victory in Sonoma in 2010 was something of a gift, as a late-race gaffe by Marcos Ambrose gave Johnson the lead with five laps to go.
"The pressure is always there, but it's the unneeded pressure that puts you in a position to make mistakes. And you can't make mistakes at this level," Johnson said. "There's already enough stress in the sport. You don't need to stack more on."