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Jimmie Johnson recharges after Sprint Cup title streak ends

DAYTONA BEACH — Jimmie Johnson's frustration was gone, and the disappointment had not yet settled in.

So when the five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion left for last year's season finale knowing his historic reign atop the sport was over, he felt relief.

"When I left Phoenix, it was crazy just feeling the pressure kind of leave," Johnson said. "I didn't realize what was on me and the high standard I had hoped for myself or the pressure I was carrying. And when it left, it was kind of like, okay, there it goes. Now it's time to enjoy Homestead."

And from there, it was time to enjoy an offseason away from his No. 48 Chevrolet, away from Hendrick Motorsports and away from the sport he fell in love with at age 5. He avoided the garage. He didn't race at the 24 Hours at Daytona for the first time since 2006.

Instead, Johnson stayed home. He spent time with his family and crossed things off of his honey-do list around the house.

"It sounds hilarious," Johnson said, "but there are a lot of things that we ignore through the course of a year, especially over the last six years and what I've been through."

Most important, he recharged his desire to race and reflected on his historic run.

What he found was that he and his team had come to expect wins. They became complacent. Johnson didn't improve his communication. His team made changes, including a pit crew overhaul before last year's Daytona 500, but it wasn't enough.

The rest of the field caught up.

"It's tough to leave a successful road map," Johnson said.

Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon knows that feeling well.

From 1995-98, Gordon won three series titles, finished second the other year and took 40 checkered flags — including a modern record 13 in 1998. He finished out of the top five in points in each of the next two seasons.

"To not take it for granted and to not get complacent, I think is impossible, when you're winning that much and you win that many championships back to back," Gordon said. "I think Jimmie did a really, really good job handling everything that was coming at him as well as he did."

Now that the pressure of his streak is gone, Johnson isn't happy with 2011. He called his career-worst sixth place finish in the points "terrible."

Frustration simmered after wrecks at Charlotte and Talladega and three straight finishes outside the top 12 to end the Chase. Disappointment followed when he saw Tweets about the series championship luncheon and realized that he wouldn't be the guest of honor.

"I don't want to do that again," Johnson said.

His 2012 season is already off to a rocky start heading into Sunday's Daytona 500. A wreck stuck him with a 14th-place finish at last weekend's Budweiser Shootout, and crew chief Chad Knaus could be punished after NASCAR found improper C-posts on the back half of Johnson's car.

But Johnson said his low-key offseason has fueled him to avenge last year's disappointment and attack the series with the intensity he had before his streak began.

"There is just an energy you have when you walk through those gates as a rookie …" Johnson said. "There is something a little different when you come in and you're early in your career. I feel like I have found those things again."

MAYFIELD CASE: Former NASCAR driver Jeremy Mayfield says new criminal charges against him are "baseless" and suggests he's the target of a conspiracy involving NASCAR and law enforcement officials.

Indictments by a North Carolina grand jury released Monday charged Mayfield with three counts of possessing property stolen from businesses, and a fourth charge of obtaining property by false pretense.

The charges follow a November raid on Mayfield's Catawba home after which the former NASCAR star was charged with possessing 1.5 grams of methamphetamine.

Mayfield, 42, has issued a statement through his attorneys saying he is innocent.

"For some reason, the district attorney's office simply ignored our offers to explain the sources of the items seized from my property and chose, instead, to indict," Mayfield said, according to the statement.

Mayfield was suspended from NASCAR after failing a random drug test at Richmond International Raceway in May 2009.

Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@tampabay.com. Information from Times wires was used in this report.

Jimmie Johnson recharges after Sprint Cup title streak ends 02/21/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 21, 2012 10:31pm]

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