DAYTONA BEACH — NASCAR is about change in 2014. There's more emphasis on winning races. For drama's sake, the championship Chase adds four drivers, from 12 to 16. There are elimination rounds, until a “Final Four” of drivers compete for the Sprint Cup title in the finale at Homestead, best finisher there wins all. Sounds like NCAA hoops. Tell me, who do you have coming out of the Martinsville regional?
The real question: What three drivers will be racing against Jimmie Johnson that final day?
Is there any really doubt about the 48?
When Johnson spoils this format, they'll put less emphasis on winning races. Or make Johnson drive a riding mower.
He hits the road today in one of the twin qualifying races for Sunday's Daytona 500, which Jimmie Johnson won last year, along with a sixth championship.
Now there's a new target: No. 7, which would tie him with NASCAR's true royalty: Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
“I don't think anyone can take those guys' place,” driver Greg Biffle said. “But I say (Jimmie) is on the same plateau as them. He's the modern-day Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.”
“I'm friends with Richard and I was friends with Dale,” Michael Waltrip said. “To me, Jimmie is already there. Where there were two, now there are three.”
How do you stop the 48?
Maybe this new Chase set-up will turn the trick.
Don't count on it.
“We respond well in pressure,” Johnson said. “That's something the 48 has done pretty well with.”
You might say that.
Last month, Johnson admitted that it briefly crossed his mind that NASCAR had him in mind when it rewrote the Chase system. But that had passed by last week and Daytona media day.
“When you look around at sports, everything is changing,” Johnson said. “The Olympics look far different than they used to. The NFL is considering change. The world is changing, our viewership is changing, so the sport has to change. I know it's going to bring more excitement, especially those final 10 races.
“I know some feel it might be the 48-proofing, of sorts. I really don't believe that in the bottom of my heart. You've got to win, then win the Chase, and that all suits the 48 and what we've done.”
Really, does putting more emphasis on winning really hurt ... a winner?
No one has won more races than Jimmie Johnson (66) since he hit NASCAR's premier racing series. Since the Chase was instituted in 2004, only Johnson has made every one of them. No man has won more Chase races (24) than Johnson. No, he has never won at Homestead, but it has never really come down to that for the 48. Now it just might. See how he runs. He's chasing No. 7 — and racing gods.
“When we got to five in a row, I felt like maybe we could maybe get up there to Richard and Dale, but, man, it is so tough to do,” Johnson said. “I'm not taking it lightly or for granted. I wanted to see six come and then worry about seven. Now we're here. Hopefully, we'll have another opportunity at it.”
Petty won No. 7 in his 19th season. Earnhardt won No. 7 in his 16th season. Johnson is entering his 13th full season. He has time on his side, for 7, for 8, for 9 ... he's only 38 and in fighting trim. And there's his team, headed by crew chief Chad Knaus, ready to work more voodoo, hopefully all legal.
Not that Johnson needs a sneaky edge at this point. He's an edge all by himself. So, there's no good reason why he shouldn't be in the conversation with Petty and Earnhardt. Old-school NASCAR types might hit the brakes, but you can't fight history, even if its owner bores you.
To 2014, and the chase within the Chase — J.J. on history's rear bumper.
“It would be nice to win the new format,” Johnson said, his face around a grin.
Is that riding mower ready yet?