By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
We may have seen the last of Jimmie Johnson in Victory Lane for at least the remainder of the 2019 season.
Currently riding an 87-race losing streak, Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team face an uphill battle to beat the teams vying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup title. Although Johnson has often been successful at upcoming tracks like Dover and Martinsville, and showed well on the new roval in Charlotte, I don’t expect him to beat the playoff teams.
Johnson and two different crew chiefs spent the season trying to win a race to get into the playoffs, which the California driver, who turned 44 last week, failed to make for the first time in his career. It’s likely the same challenges with Chevy’s Camaro faced all season long have yet to be overcome. Playoff teams, meanwhile, have momentum and cars they’ve been working on ever since they were confirmed for the postseason.
The present circumstances seem like a long way from “Five Time” and seven total championships. But the problems also have the look of a typical racing cycle.
It’s not physical for Johnson, who has rarely found himself in a slump. A guy who ran this year’s Boston Marathon in just over three hours is not lacking in physical conditioning. Like so many stock car drivers before him who have been victorious long after their 600th start, the quickness in the hands and hand/eye coordination are still there. As for motivation—see that marathon he ran on an off weekend while vying to get a stellar time under three hours.
When he won five straight titles from 2006 through 2010, Johnson had everything working his way. The Car of Tomorrow was introduced in 2007 and became the full-time Cup vehicle in 2008. One of its many new attributes, according to the designer Gary Nelson, was a center of aerodynamic pressure moved back toward the rear. This meant a car sliding out of control due to a loss of grip in the rear tires was more likely to self-correct. Theoretically, this meant fewer “Big Ones” on the restrictor plate tracks and the specter of cars flying into grandstands.
This characteristic of the COT was exploited to the maximum by Kyle Busch, who had a lot of incredible saves (and some not-so-successful saves where the COT safety cocoon certainly helped). Johnson, who likes to drive a tail-happy car, banked on this handling characteristic and ended up with a string of championships.
It wasn’t just about the car. Johnson won a sixth title with the new Gen 6 chassis in 2013 and his seventh in 2016. In these years, as before, the original championship format of the Chase suited Johnson and his Hendrick team. Johnson relied on consistency and winning form on the tracks at Dover, Martinsville and Charlotte in the era when 1.0-mile and 1.5-mile tracks dominated the final 10 playoff races. In all, Johnson won 18 races during the Chase in his seven championship seasons. Missing from the Chase was a road course, not Johnson’s strongest suit. Talladega has been the sole “restrictor plate” track, also not Johnson’s strong suit, on the postseason schedule. (Johnson’s two victories at Talladega have come in the spring.)
In the 2018 season, Johnson and his long-time crew chief, Chad Knaus, struggled with the new Chevy Camaro. In the past two seasons, only one driver, Chase Elliott, has more than one victory onboard the Camaro. Among teammates at Hendrick, Alex Bowman has one victory while Johnson and William Byron, now paired with Knaus, remain winless in the latest Chevy.
Johnson and his hand-picked crew chief, Cliff Daniels, who succeeded Kevin Meendering, can be expected to make gains on understanding the Camaro chassis. Therein lies the rub. In the good ol’ days, before stage racing, a consistent driver like Johnson could work his way to front over the course of an entire race. Stage racing means the car needs to come off the truck in competitive shape. Sorting a chassis and getting the most out of the chassis is a tough nut to crack if the driver doesn’t initially jell with a new machine, which appears to be a problem with the majority of Chevy drivers and the Camaro. Over time, the good teams and drivers figure these things out.
It’s impossible to name a champion driver in NASCAR who hasn’t hit an occasional dip in performance. One of NASCAR’s most consistent winners, David Pearson retired with 105 victories—and a 47-race losing streak. It’s usually a matter of adapting to changing mechanical issues or adapting to a new team.
I don’t expect to see Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team, the only one he has ever known at the Cup level, to return to Victory Lane this year. Although I wouldn’t be totally surprised if he breaks through at Dover or Martinsville, where he’s won a combined 20 races. If the 2020 season proves to be a winless campaign for Johnson and Daniels, well, that would be a surprise.
(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram is a 43-year veteran of reporting on racing and the author of six books. CRASH! How the HANS Helped Save Racing, is being released this month. For more information, see www.jingrambooks.com.)