The 2020 season will be one of “lasts” for seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, who announced last winter that this would be his final year of full-time racing. It will begin with his last Daytona 500 and feature 35 more last times before he hangs up his helmet after the season finale at ISM Raceway.
No matter what he does in 2020, Johnson will exit as one of the best ever to drive in NASCAR’s top series, but he doesn’t want his career to end like his 2019 season did. Winless in the last two seasons, Johnson, whose last title came in 2016, intends to go out fighting for a record-setting eighth championship.
Last season wasn’t Johnson’s worst statistically (that was 2018), but it wasn’t what fans once expected, either. Prior to 2018, Johnson had never had fewer than two wins in a season and routinely scored 20-plus top-10 finishes. He has struggled with racecars that are lighter and less powerful than the ones he was so successful in, and when Chevrolet introduced the Camaro ZL1 to the series, all of the Chevy teams had trouble getting the cars up to speed. Even Hendrick Motorsports wasn’t immune to the issues.
Hendrick is still one of the best in the business, but its status as the most feared organization in NASCAR is a thing of the past. The company showed improvement in 2019, putting two of its drivers in Victory Lane and three in the playoffs, but for the first time since the playoffs were introduced, Johnson wasn’t one of them.
Last season was also the first in which Johnson wasn’t paired with crew chief Chad Knaus, with whom he won all seven of his Cup titles. It’s hard to deny that the relationship between Johnson and Knaus had run its course, but old habits die hard, and Johnson struggled to build a relationship with Kevin Meendering for several months. It was obvious that it wasn’t working, and Johnson wasn’t getting what he needed to run competitively.
Enter Cliff Daniels, who joined as crew chief in late July and showed immediate results. Communication was vastly improved, and Johnson raced with confidence. He said late in the season that he believed in Daniels, but that the change couldn’t be made sooner.
“I know at the end of , Cliff came off the road [and] went to a different department within Hendrick; he wasn’t an option for the crew chief conversation, and Kevin was our best selection — and was the selection we wanted to make,” Johnson says. “And then it just worked out when Cliff came and was our engineer at the track at Sonoma. I don’t know how it could’ve gone any differently. You know … Cliff is the right guy for me for sure.”
The duo has yet to see results, as late 2019 was marred by on-track incidents and mechanical issues, but Johnson enters this season with Daniels on the box and a surge of confidence. Hendrick and the Chevrolets are making gains as well.
Sponsor Ally has been happy with the decision to back Johnson, originally signing through 2020 but extending for three years in hopes that he would race until then, though the financial services company knew that retirement was always a possibility.
An elusive eighth title is probaby an unrealistic expectation for Johnson in 2020, but if Daniels can deliver a car that’s capable of winning and that Johnson is comfortable in, the veteran driver can put that car in the winner’s circle. He can wind up with a playoff spot, going out the right way. The fans’ view of him may have shifted; he’s no longer roundly booed at a lot of tracks, and there’s more respect for the 44-year-old now.
Johnson has confidently said he knows what this team is capable of. Can they get him to victory lane one last time?
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2020 Cup Championship: 50/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)