Tick-tock. That sound could be all of his Martinsville grandfather clocks, but it could also be Father Time calling on Jimmie Johnson. The seven-time Cup Series champion enters the 2018 NASCAR season as the winningest active driver on the circuit... but also as the oldest. Does Johnson have another title run in him? It’s possible, but time might not be on his side.
Age aside, Johnson is coming off a season that was, despite winning three races, the worst of his career. His four top 5s, 11 top 10s, 217 laps led and 16.8 average finish were all career lows. He had the fewest lead-lap finishes since his rookie season. It was a season that many drivers would still give their eye teeth for — 10th in the final standings — but it wasn’t the kind of season anyone expects from Johnson.
Perhaps the biggest concern was that Johnson, who has played the playoff game better than anyone no matter the system, had nothing during the 2017 title run. A summer slump is the norm for Johnson, but he’s always come alive in the playoffs, and it just didn’t happen. Even at Dover and Martinsville, tracks where he’s usually been able to secure a win when he needed one most, Johnson couldn’t find the magic. For the first time since the playoffs began in 2004, Johnson didn’t record a single win in the final 10 races. The best he could muster was a third at Dover, a track where a Johnson win has been nearly a foregone conclusion.
The question that Johnson and Co. need to answer going into 2018: Why did they struggle? After three solid wins early in the season, it’s hard to believe that Johnson’s age suddenly caught up to him. He will inevitably decline at some point, and that decline may have begun, but that’s not the sole reason for his performance.
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Hendrick Motorsports still fields the top Chevrolets in NASCAR, and the new Camaros for 2018 should improve things overall for the Bowtie brigade. Johnson is a magician at finding speed in a car, but there has to be speed to be found. The new cars should be an improvement.
Chad Knaus has been on top of Johnson’s pit box since Day 1, and his reputation as one of the top minds in the garage is well-earned. He and Johnson communicate well, perhaps better than any other duo. Johnson tells him what he needs, and Knaus finds the adjustment and strategy to give it to him. The worry is that last year, when Johnson would tell Knaus what was going on, Knaus had no idea how to fix it, which frustrated Johnson and the whole team. Strategy calls didn’t work like they used to. If it was the cars, and the Camaro has the missing speed, they should go back to being the dynamic duo. If it’s a relationship gone stagnant, though, that’s a larger problem, and Johnson won’t like the solution very much.
A big change will be the departure of car chief Ron Malec, who’s prepared cars for Johnson since before his NASCAR days. It’s a change that could go either way: Johnson has depended on Malec, but new blood could be something the team needs.
The No. 48 team isn’t hurting for resources. Lowe’s Home Improvement is one of the last remaining full-season sponsors, backing Johnson since the day he first climbed into the car. Johnson also has three young teammates this year. They’ll lean on him, but perhaps he can lean on them as well. They’ll bring new ideas to the table, and Johnson’s team needs some of those.
Johnson didn’t stumble into 83 career wins, and he’s still got plenty of talent. If he and his team can bottle lightning like they used to, another title isn’t off the table. But they need to right the ship first, and time isn’t on Johnson’s side. Tick-tock.