Looking at the year-by-year stats, it becomes apparent that most drivers experience a significant decline in production when they hit their mid-40s. Couple that with the physical demands of racing, and it’s no surprise that drivers such as Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart are deciding to hang up their helmets before they turn 46.
Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson acknowledged the difficulty of racing in the twilight years, saying last weekend at Dover that “the Mark Martin racing into your 50s era is probably gone. The schedule, the demands, everything that goes on, I would say mid-40s is probably going to be that point for a lot of guys.”
While Johnson, a newly anointed member of the over-40 club, has not given much thought to when he’ll retire, his failures in the Chase for the Sprint Cup in back-to-back seasons have left fans and critics wondering if his best years are behind him.
Just two years ago, Johnson appeared to be en-route to tying, and possibly even breaking the NASCAR-record seven championship mark earned by legends Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty. But now, after back-to-back early exits in the Chase, the Two-Headed Monster wonders: Will JJ ever claim another title?
Will Jimmie Johnson Win Another Championship?
Opinion One: Nope, Johnson’s Done.
There are a lot of cases that could be made for Johnson not winning another championship on the Sprint Cup tour. Kevin Harvick. Joey Logano. Joe Gibbs Racing. Drama and controversy with crew chief Chad Knaus.
Yes, all of those are possible reasons why Six-Time won’t win another championship. But they aren’t very convincing. There are two pretty huge factors working against Johnson, however: Father Time and the Chase.
But wait, the Chase? Johnson’s personal playground, where he’s won 50% of all potential titles during the playoff era?
But first, let’s look at Johnson’s age. He turned 40 earlier this season, a milestone that historically has signified the beginning of the end of the dominance of great drivers. In fact, before we go any farther, let’s take a look at the stats of some of NASCAR’s best once they hit age 40.
|Results After Age 40|
|* Age at beginning of year||x Age during final season, 2016||Y Through 29 races in 2015|
|Age Retired*||Seasons||Races||Wins||T5||T10||T5/Yr||T10/Yr||PoleS||Laps||Led||Avg Rank||Avg St||Avg Fn||LLF||LLF %|
|Jeff Gordon Y||43||4||137||7||36||72||9||18||10||38650||2293||7.25||11.775||13.6||107||0.78102189781|
|Tony Stewart Y||45 x||5||155||9||29||52||5.8||10.4||3||43853||1596||17.8||17.1||17.16||101||0.651612903226|
|Dale Earnhardt Sr.||50||10||314||28||121||196||12.1||19.6||10||95631||7367||4.3||17.16||10.92||199||0.633757961783|
A couple of major things stand out when looking at this chart: only four drivers won more than 10 races after they turned 40. Of those, Petty and Earnhardt won in eras that were decidedly less competitive than today. Dale Jarrett won 24 races, but 20 of those came before the age of 45. Martin’s dream 2009 season, in which he won five races, came when he was 50 years old, but only while driving for Hendrick Motorsports, and only after running a couple of part-time seasons to rejuvenate himself.
Gordon and Stewart, who are most comparable to Johnson because they raced head to head for 15 seasons, can be used to predict the direction that Johnson could likely go. Gordon especially, because he drives the same equipment that Johnson runs.
So how did those two do once they hit 40? Not too hot. In fact, they are in the bottom three for wins (seven for Gordon, nine for Stewart) and Stewart posted the lowest top-five and top-10 totals among the eight drivers studied. Some of that can be attributed to his off-track struggles, but even while healthy, Stewart hasn’t been able to understand the rules packages.
It’s not all bad news, however. All of these drivers stayed competitive during their 40s, with the early 40s being their best years. Six times, one of them won the championship during that time, although it has only happened once in this millennium.
42 seems to be the magic number. Among the eight drivers listed that was the age they collectively did their best. Gordon won four times. Petty five. Earnhardt six. In fact, only Bill Elliott failed to win when he was 42. Three of those eight went on to be the season champ.
So Johnson has a chance, albeit one that gets slimmer each and every year, to win a record-tying seventh championship.
That’s where the second major argument comes in.
NASCAR’s Chase has had many different variations, and Johnson seemed to conquer them all. But then last year’s version rolled around, and the eliminations made winning a championship even more complicated. Johnson bowed out during the second round last year, a wreck at Kansas dooming his chances to advance on points.
Just last week at Dover, Johnson was shocked to be eliminated following the first round after a $5 part failed and sidelined the team to make repairs. With no other Chasers experiencing trouble, Johnson ran lap after lap upon reentering the race – on his best track, no less – but was unable to gain enough spots to make up the difference.
“With this format, a bad finish can take you out, end your chances,” he said following the event. “You’ve got to be on for 10 races.”
Whether it’s a cheap part, an expensive engine or an angry driver, one bad race and a championship run could be over. It’s a lesson learned not just by Johnson, but also Kyle Busch and Gordon the past two years.
While Johnson is still trying to figure out this new Chase format, there is a simple way he can take another title: win. You can have as many failures or wrecks as you want as long as you win one of the three races in the round. Harvick did it last year. He did it again last week.
Johnson is the winningest driver during Chase races, so it should be simple, right? Not if he has years like 2014. He won only one race during the 10-week playoffs, and that one came after he was eliminated from the Chase. It meant nothing in other than the 70th win of his career. No automatic berth into the next round. Bummer.
This season, he’s won four times but not since May. While the team has stepped up their game and now has nothing to lose, they could go on a tear such as the one Stewart did in 2006 after missing the Chase. It won’t win them the head table at Las Vegas, however. You have to win, but you have to win at the right time. Johnson hasn’t done that the last couple years. And history indicates that he won’t win as much now that he is 40.
About those wins. Since the Chase era began in 2004, only one driver has won the championship with fewer than five wins. The average number of wins a champion takes a season is 5.8. Johnson averages 4.9 wins in a season, a number that is expected to get lower not just because of Johnson’s age but also because other drivers are coming into their prime.
Out of the eight drivers studied, only seven times has a 40-plus year old driver won more than five races in a single season. Only twice has it happened since 2000. And only one of those two times did it earn the driver a Sprint Cup.
Johnson is a talent, but the clock is ticking. Between his age and the increasingly complex playoff system, 2013 might have been the last time the No. 48 team holds that big silver trophy. – Sean Fesko
Opinion Two: Yes, JJ Has Another Championship in Him
Wow. Are we really asking this question already? Can Johnson win another championship?
Yes. Yes he can.
Sure, Johnson was eliminated in shocking fashion from the first round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup after what many would call a subpar year for him – a subpar year that includes four wins with a strong possibility of adding more – but that’s no reason to write the six-time champion out of the championship battle for the rest of his career.
Since entering the Sprint Cup Series full-time in 2002, the Californian has yet to finish worse than 11th in the championship standings. Until last year’s span of bad luck in the Chase, Johnson had never finished worse than sixth.
Johnson is arguably the greatest competitor of the current NASCAR generation. His six championships trump anyone not named Earnhardt or Petty, and his streak of five-straight titles from 2006-2010 is the greatest mark in NASCAR history.
Yet somehow, two seasons removed from his sixth title in 2013, critics are already pondering if he’ll ever win another title.
Give me a break.
There’s a reason the #BlameJJ is so popular on Twitter. Fans and competitors know that Johnson and the No. 48 team are capable of rattling off wins ad nauseam on any stretch of the schedule.
Take this season for example. 2015’s been a difficult year for HMS, yielding “only” six wins, a poor year for the team despite a win total most teams wouldn’t dream of achieving. That Johnson managed four triumphs with the team’s difficulty finding speed speaks for the strength and talent of both he and crew chief Chad Knaus.
The consistent ability of Johnson and Knaus, one of the best driver-crew chief pairings in NASCAR history, to win at any given track has been evident in a review of the team’s statistics. Since Johnson’s rookie year, he’s gone to victory lane at least twice in every season, scoring five or more wins in eight of his 14 seasons. Johnson even earned a rare 10-win season in 2007, earning his second title in dominant fashion.
The ability to win one or even multiple races at any given moment is what gives certainty that Johnson can – and will – lift a seventh Sprint Cup Series championship trophy above his head before he retires.
The modern Chase is tailored to teams that can win when necessary. Harvick has both advanced and won the title by virtue of winning when it mattered three times to date.
Eventually, the same fate will befall Johnson. He’s the winningest driver in the history of the Chase, with victories at every track in the Chase save for two, Chicagoland Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway. His lack of a victory at the latter track may be concerning, but must also be considered with context. Johnson’s spent six of his 14 runs at the 1-mile oval attempting to stay out of harm’s way to earn a title, and was also in contention to win the event in 2012 when a rear gear issue forced him to the garage.
Johnson always peaks at some point in the season and makes his way to victory lane. The unfortunate truth for the No. 48 crew this season is that their peak came too early. Johnson’s four wins all came in a three-month span from late February through May.
Had Rick Hendrick’s top squad chosen a different three-month period – oh, say September through November – to peak, Frontstretch would probably be debating whether Johnson will claim a record-breaking eighth title instead of worrying fans about his ability to earn a seventh.
Such is the way the dominoes fell, though. But that’s alright, Johnson will soon remind everyone why he has the chance to tie Earnhardt and Petty for a piece of racing immortality in the first place.
Hendrick Motorsports has rarely faltered for long, and there’s no reason to believe this time will be any different. The team will soon be back in peak form, and when they are, Johnson and the No. 48 crew will get back to doing what they do best: spraying champagne and lifting trophies. – Aaron Bearden