Will the real Jimmie Johnson please step forward? No, an imposter hasn’t taken over the seven-time champion’s ride (that we know of, anyway), but the Johnson we saw in 2018 was far from the dominant driver who won five straight titles from 2006-2010. Among playoff drivers, only Austin Dillon had as few top 5s and fewer top 10s, but Dillon had a win. Johnson didn’t, snapping a 16-year streak.
What led to the downturn? Is it simply the toll of time? Doubtful. After all, Kevin Harvick had a career year, and he’s just a couple of months younger than Johnson.
Hendrick Motorsports was a little behind last year, but was Johnson’s disappointing season a result of that, or vice versa? Johnson won with equal dominance in the fourth-generation Cup cars, the Car of Tomorrow and the current Gen6 racecar. Is the lower-downforce, lower-horsepower car we’ve seen the last couple of years too much like the Xfinity cars that Johnson never found much success in?
If it’s that, will the 2019 rules, with more downforce but less horsepower, bode well for Johnson? He showed speed in last year’s All-Star Race with a similar package.
Or was the problem that his team had grown stagnant with success? Longtime car chief Ron Malec left the team before last season, so there was an adjustment there. And what of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, who had been together for Johnson’s entire career? Had that relationship soured, and were old strategies no longer working? It’s possible; team communications were terse at times last year. We’ll know the answer to that one soon, though, as engineer Kevin Meendering takes over as Johnson’s head wrench this season while Knaus moves to the No. 24 of William Byron. There will be a learning curve. Johnson has never had to communicate with another full-time crew chief, and Meendering has never even held the position for a Cup race. But if he can bring something new to the table to help Johnson adjust to the rules, it could bring a breath of fresh air to the team.
Despite his struggles, Johnson won a major vote of confidence late last year. After Lowe’s, the only Cup sponsor Johnson has ever had, shifted its focus away from motorsports, Johnson did what few drivers in NASCAR have been able to do — land a full-season replacement in Ally Financial. Very few teams can attract just one backer to foot the bill for a whole season, but Johnson — recent woes and all — is still the active wins leader, has more titles than anyone except for two of the first drivers to enter NASCAR’s Hall of Fame, and is still as tenacious in the car as he ever was.
Even though it’s no longer top dog in NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports did have some success last year, particularly with Chase Elliott in the playoffs, and Johnson nearly pulled off the win at Charlotte’s Roval before a crash on the last turn ended those hopes.
Johnson needs to show this year that his age (at 43, he’s the oldest full-time Cup driver out there) is not the culprit. For that to happen, he’ll need to quickly adapt to both his new crew chief and the new rules package. He’s certainly got motivation to win if his equipment is at all capable, so look for the best from Johnson in terms of racing like he did at Charlotte, when he had a car to match his hunger.
He’s never missed the playoffs since NASCAR added the format, and you shouldn’t look for him to miss out this year. He’s got a long way to go before he’s a contender for title number eight, but he’s also a long way from done.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2019 Cup Championship: 30/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)