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posted December 10, 2017
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Jimmie Johnson & Crew Chief Chad Knaus in 2017
Furnished by NASCAR
By Gerald Hodges/the Racing Reporter
   Jimmie Johnson's 2017 racing saga has to be one of the most puzzling driver stories of the entire season.
  Johnson started the year with seven championships and hoped to make it eight to break the record-book tie for most titles with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Also, he needed just four victories to move into a tie for fourth all-time wins with 84, matching Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip.
   No matter how good your plans or team is, fate or circumstances often gets involved in the game of racing.
   His first incident was a crash at Daytona, followed by a string of so-so finishes. Then he gained back-to-back wins at Texas and Bristol.
   He wasn't dominant in those races, but he and crew chief Chad Knaus were making good decisions, outwitting when they weren't necessarily outrunning the competition.
   He won a third time at Dover, so after 13 races into the season, he had three wins and looked to be among the favorites for the championship.
   2017 marked the first time in Johnson's 16-year career he did not win a race after the start of summer. His 217 laps led marked a career low.
   His team had run out of mojo.
   What happened thereafter turned Johnson's season into what might be the worst three-win season in NASCAR history. In the next 23 races, he managed four top-10 finishes but never threatened to win.     He crashed out of five races and once is officially listed as “parked.”
   In those 23 races Johnson led just 40 laps, and he led those 40 only by extending green-flag runs while other teams — the ones with a chance to win — came in for fuel and tires.
   He picked up several pit-road speeding penalties. Knaus made a few questionable pit strategy calls. They looked vulnerable, and now and then the two of them got a little tense with each other during their in-race radio chatter.
   “I feel like the way the last quarter of the season went for us was below our expectations and certainly our fans and probably even the people reporting on the sport,'' Johnson said. “It is unfair to always expect us to win a championship but I think being competitive and leading laps and challenging for wins is a fair expectation and we just didn't do that at the end of the year.”
   Last year Johnson spent much of the off season at his new home in Colorado – skiing, getting his young daughters up on snowboards and generally enjoying the good times and just rewards of having cemented his legendary status in the sport.
   “This off season is going to be different,” he said. “This year we won't do that, we'll just go out for holiday seasons and maybe West Coast swings, things like that.
   “I'm sad I won't be there as much with my family, but it was a lot easier last year after a championship. With the poor finish we just had, we need to buckle down and get to work.
   “Every offseason has different effects. This one is much more about letting go of stress and tension and relaxing. Last year after winning the championship it was being on top of the world and celebrating and trying to get to Colorado as fast as I could to ski as often as I could.
   “This year I'm kind of licking my wounds in a sense. Trying to think through what we could have done better in '17. As the month moves on start thinking of ways we could communicate better, put a better product on the track.”
   Johnson believes that his team will have a better run at the championship next season.
   “I'm optimistic about 2018 and the new Camaro,'' Johnson continued. “From an aerodynamic standpoint the Chevrolets have not had an update since we went to this generation of car. For us to finally have an update the car will produce more downforce, be more efficient, definitely more competitive on the downforce tracks.
   “Change is good. No one is ever really in the same place individually, collectively or as a group. You're either growing together or growing a part. Some change is always happening, so I think the change taking place for us is change in the right direction, will bring the company closer together and produce a better product, more competitive cars.”
   Johnson has been a great driver in the past. If his team can correct some of the problems they encountered last year, there's no reason to doubt he will be in the Final-4. But Johnson turned 42 this past season and history doesn't favor older drivers in racing.
   Tony Stewart is headed “Down Under” for some sprint car racing, Dec. 12-16.
   According to a report in the New Zealand Herald, Stewart said this is a trip 20 years in the making.
   The 46-year-old has shipped his sprint car to the island nation, and plans to compete in several events in the Porter Hire International Sprintcar Series at Western Springs Speedway and Robertson Holden International Speedway.
   “In 1995 when we won the USAC Triple Crown we got booked to go to Australia,” Stewart said. “The promoter at Western Springs was Willie K and he tried to get me to come over for the 1996-97 season but just timing-wise it didn't work out. After 1995 I got my first NASCAR ride and the same with an IndyCar drive so there was no way I was going to have the time to come back over.
   “It has been a long time coming to get over here but we are pretty excited about the chance to come out."
   Stewart retired from full-time NASCAR competition following the 2016 Cup Series season. In his full-time return to sprint car racing, Stewart did not post the results he wanted to and hopes his long awaited trip to the Kiwi State proves to be fruitful.
   “I got back in a sprint car after two and a half years and did not have a very good summer,” he said. “I think we won two races all summer, which isn't very good by our standards.
   “I am running the same sprint car that we raced in the US. It is a 410 cubic inch winged sprint car. I am pretty excited – it is what I am doing now that I'm not a NASCAR driver anymore. I am back to running sprint cars a lot.”
   Meanwhile NASCAR did shake up its 2018 Cup Series schedule by moving races around. Indianapolis is now the last race of the regular season, Las Vegas is now the playoff opener, and there's the addition of the Charlotte road course. While NASCAR has not cut the length of any race, there is concern that fans are getting tired of long, boring races.
   “I think with the stage racing and the things that we have going now and the attention spans of what people want to watch, the races shouldn't be as long,” said Kevin Harvick. “I think we need the Coke 600, the Daytona 500 and the Southern 500, but everything else should be shorter."
   Kyle Busch returned to his short track roots last weekend and won perhaps the biggest race in the recent history of Super Late Model competition in the 50th annual Snowball Derby.
   The race featured NASCAR notables Corey LaJoie, Harrison Burton, Mason Mingus, Ty Majeski and Noah Gragson. And yet, the fight came down to Busch versus two Late Model lifers: Bubba Pollard and Jeff Choquette.
   “I didn't think we had it there for about 280 laps, and then that final 20 she came to life,” Busch said after the race. “I just tried to persevere, save and work my way to those guys and finally be able to get my way around them. I wasn't sure once I got there I'd have enough to be able to get by them, but they just kind of kept falling off and I just plateaued and kind of stayed.”
   He also won the race in 2009.
  Racing Trivia Question: How many Cup races did Ryan Newman win in 2017?
   Last Week's Question:  Where did Kyle Busch finish in this year's Chase for the Championship? Answer. He finished as runner-up behind Martin Truex Jr.
   Gerald Hodges is a syndicated NASCAR writer and author. His books may be viewed and ordered online at You may contact him by e-mail at: