Jimmie Johnson says he would not be disappointed if he did not match Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty's tally of championships, while he expects more teams to challenge him for the title in 2011.
A week before Johnson kicks off yet another title defense at the season-opening Daytona 500, a poll of NASCAR media voted him favorite to win an unprecedented sixth consecutive championship this season. Last year the Californian entered the season finale second in the points behind Denny Hamlin, but managed to overcome a 15-point deficit to claim what he said at the time was his most significant championship.
Despite his status as favorite once again, Johnson says he would be happy with his career achievements if it turns out he is unable to win another title. His Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon won four championships in a seven-year span between 1995 and 2001, but has been unable to win a fifth crown thus far.
"If it all ended today, there is no way I would be disappointed," Johnson said. "It's been one hell of a ride. I'm so proud of the growth I've had as a driver from motocross, off-road trucks, stock cars, there's a lot of years where I was tearing stuff up and trying to find my way.
"When I went with Hendrick things smoothed out and it's been one heck of a ride. So, if it all ended today I would be very proud of all that has taken place."
Although Hamlin and Kevin Harvick posed the biggest threat to his championship streak ending last year, Johnson expects Roush Fenway Racing drivers to be contenders this season after finishing 2010 strongly, with Carl Edwards winning the last two races of the season. He also expects Stewart Haas drivers Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman to put up a fight in what will be the team's third season running Hendrick Motorsports machinery.
"I can say that we saw a very good points battle last year and that didn't include the Roush guys and the way they ran at the end of the season, the Childress, Hendrick, Gibbs group separated itself, you're going to have Roush back now," said Johnson.
"So we're going to have one more quality group of drivers in there mixing it up. I think it's going to be a very good year. We can all sit here and get fired up and get quotes to start the season but I'd say come Vegas or maybe after Vegas, I think before five races in, we can start passing out report cards to see who did what over the off-season."
Johnson's team will have a new pit crew for 2011 after facing some issues late during last year's Chase. His crew chief Chad Knaus called for a controversial swap with Gordon's crew during the play-off event at Texas, which proved successful in the end for the champion's team. He said the new members have been put to the test at Charlotte Motor Speedway, in the aim of getting the best possible crew for the start of the season.
"We had all four cars at Charlotte doing live pit stops to see," Johnson said. "We put a lot of pressure on them to see if somebody was better. So we're still in the process. Chad may have made some decisions.
"I was there at that test with those guys last week and I haven't heard the final roster. From what I saw, that was a very, very strong first and second string of guys. That's our plan, to make sure we have depth and if someone is hurt or having a bad day we can make changes and not lose anything on pit road."
On Saturday night, Johnson will compete in the Budweiser Shootout, which he has won once, back in 2005.