First K&N Pro Series East victory for NASCAR Next driver comes in front of influential eyes
Can Johnson rebound from 2014 disappointments? RELATED: Complete schedule for driver previews Team: Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet Rank in final 2014 standings: 11th Wins: 4 (Charlotte in May; Dover in June, Michigan in June; Texas in November) Year in photos: Johnson's 2014 highlights Strides: In a testament to Johnson's sustained level of success for the bulk of his career, going winless for the first 11 races of 2014 was viewed as something more than a minor slump. But after his fourth Coca-Cola 600 triumph in May, Johnson capitalized for a torrid stretch as springtime drew to a close. The run of three victories in four races came at venues where he's dominated -- seven career wins at Charlotte, nine at Dover -- but it also crossed a track off the short list of speedways where he had never won -- Michigan. After posting his third straight win in the fall at Texas Motor Speedway , Johnson reached a career milestone with victory No. 70 in NASCAR's premier series. Setbacks: Despite the four victories, Johnson and Co. lacked the bulletproof aura that carried the No. 48 team to six Sprint Cup championships, leading to his lowest finish in the series standings in his 13-year career. A stretch of three crashes in four races during the summer halted any momentum from May and June, and Johnson led laps in just two events during a 15-race span including the start of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs. Johnson made it through the first elimination phase in the new-look postseason format, but saw his hopes for a record-tying seventh series title fizzle after three subpar finishes in the Contender Round. Though the four wins matched the impressive tallies posted by Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr ., being left out of the championship conversation left a sour taste. "I don't have a clue, or else we would've fixed it," Johnson said. "At times, we felt like, 'Man, we found it, we got it,' and then other times, it seemed so far away. We know our cars are capable of going fast. We look at the performance the 24 (Gordon) had all year and then obviously the 4 car (series champ Kevin Harvick ). We've got the same stuff as those boys, so just getting the ingredients right and getting the feel that I need in the car is key. Again, we had some high spots in the year where I really felt like we were onto it, and then unfortunately we couldn't maintain it as consistently as we needed to." Quoteworthy: "We have plenty of issues. We're like a married couple. Every married couple's got issues," Johnson said with a laugh about his occasional squabbles with crew chief Chad Knaus over two-way communications. "Without a doubt, we weren't happy. We weren't happy with our performances and unfortunately, it gets aired out over the radio at times, but Chad and I are committed to one another and I can promise that there's still going to be more animated conversations on the radio -- that's just the way it works in our group. Nothing to freak out over, nothing to worry about. We'll get geared up and try to win another championship next year." What's next: Johnson and Knaus both return to the No. 48 camp in 2015, keeping one of the longest-running driver/crew chief combinations in the sport intact. Johnson said he hoped his team would be able to adapt to 2015's rule changes more rapidly than it did to 2014's, but the crew will also need to adjust to shifts within the organization. Kenny Francis moves over from his longtime role as Kasey Kahne 's crew chief to the new position of vehicle technical director, serving as the primary go-between for the operation's crew chiefs and vehicle group. The transition may help shore up the loss of expert engineer Rex Stump, who joined Stewart-Haas Racing in the offseason. The one adjustment Johnson hopes to avoid? Getting used to being far-removed from the head table at the NASCAR Champion's Week awards banquet. "I lived the season, I knew our peaks and valleys, but to come here to the awards and be reminded of it all again, it's an eye-opening event and it certainly kind of kicked me in the rear -- not that I need the motivation," Johnson said during the annual Las Vegas gala in December. "Again, it's very deep inside me and is there, but maybe it just shows we're a little mortal as well. We've had such an amazing run over the years. (In 2013) when we won the championship, we'd won half the championships we entered so that's a pretty rare situation. Very thankful for those opportunities but I want a few more." FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
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