It was a mere year ago that Jimmie Johnson went to Victory Lane in historic fashion at Dover International Speedway. The No. 48 team was victorious at the one-mile oval for the 10th time, the most in track history.
Johnson has since surpassed the late Dale Earnhardt’s mark of 76 triumphs in NASCAR’s elite division, putting him sixth on the all-time wins list.
The future NASCAR Hall of Fame member, however, is entering the latter years of his career. Still going strong, Johnson has two wins through the first 12 races of the season. But with Kevin Harvick mulling an offer from Hendrick Motorsports, according to sources that spoke to our Tom Bowles, changes might be in the air at the four-car team.
Johnson, 40, is on a lifetime contract with Hendrick Motorsports, though some say he’s only signed through 2017. Either way, he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and neither is crew chief Chad Knaus as the two look to tie — and possibly surpass — the magic number of seven championships.
Q: Jimmie Johnson has two wins this year, but he doesn’t seem to have the speed he did in the past. Is there something wrong with the No. 48 team? – Jennifer P., Nashville.
A: There is nothing wrong with Johnson or his team. After winning two of the first five races, the No. 48 squad proved early on that they will be title contenders, as per usual.
However, what is different is Johnson’s level of dominance during Sprint Cup races. What made this team a dynasty the way it dominated week-in and week-out, leading over 100 laps in 63 races — an impressive 12 percent of the time, which is a higher percentage than that of drivers just winning races.
But since the introduction of the new Chase format in 2014, Johnson has noticeably slowed down. It isn’t necessarily the season-end result that indicates how the six-time champion has performed, but it is how strong his No. 48 Chevrolet is on a weekly basis.
In 2014, Johnson led 1,310 laps, down 675 from his last championship run the year prior, when he led a ridiculous 19.26 percent of the laps he ran. But last year, he led just 558 laps, the lowest amount he’s paced the field since 2005, when he led a career-low 547 laps.
Finishing 11th and 10th, respectively, in the standings the past two years, Johnson has been seemingly plagued by the new Chase format. His dominance has ended as the team’s strategy has changed.
The emphasis is no longer on winning races once a driver enters Victory Lane and punches their ticket in the Chase. Instead, Johnson, who was victorious this year and last in the second event of the season, is able to take a step back and try out new things. It’s a major difference from the Johnson that ruled race-after-race in past seasons.
Once Johnson gets into the Chase, he has notably struggled over the past two seasons. His early exits since the elimination-style format was introduced could partially be pointed at the team’s lack of dominance at the tracks they visited early in the season. Other times, it has been bad luck, such as when he won at Dover last May, but in October, had an issue that relegated him to a 41st-place finish.
“I mean 74 race wins, 10 here, I mean, you can’t dream that big,” Johnson said last May. “I’m just blown away and honored by the success – what we’ve done with our opportunity and honored to have a shot at history with Dale and then the 10 wins here.”
It’s incidents like this past weekend at Dover, when Johnson experienced a problem shifting gears while restarting second and caused a 17-car pile-up, that make people wonder what is going on with this team. This is not something that would have happened to Johnson during his championship run, some would say.
While Johnson has six top 10s through 12 races this year, he has not shown the speed he once did.
The No. 48 team is not leading laps like they used to. They are not dominating races anymore. Instead, Johnson is cruising to solid finishes, using different strategies with Knaus in an attempt to make up for the lack of speed.
Evidently, it is not a problem for just the No. 48 team. All of Hendrick Motorsports has been on the decline, with the exception of rookie Chase Elliott, who has eight top 10s through his first 12 races with the No. 24 crew.
Kasey Kahne is slowly getting back to being consistent, earning four top 10s thus far, but still has a ways to go. And then there is Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who has two runner-up finishes this year, but not much more on paper other than that.
If Kahne actually gets demoted to a lesser team with an HMS alliance in lieu of Harvick, it would cause a massive shake-up for the team’s future.
It would certainly bring up the question how many years Johnson has left in NASCAR, along with who will replace him. Remember, Johnson and Harvick are the same age, but both seemingly have plenty of time left in the sport that they have each called home since the early 2000s.
As Hendrick looks for the missing piece to get the team back on track with the likes of Joe Gibbs Racing, one has to think that Johnson is going to lead the way. It is still early in the season, and the organization is desperately attempting to find something to make them contenders for wins on a weekly basis with the low-downforce aero package.
But when Johnson struggles to find speed at a track like Dover, arguably his best with 10 victories and an average finish of 9.6 in 29 start, it can understandably worry fans. Additionally, it is a sign that HMS has work to do.
Remember, Johnson and Knaus have worked together since he was a rookie in 2002. Maybe, just maybe, it is time for a new face to step onto the pit box to shake things up. If that ever happens, which at this point is doubtful, the team would mess around with chemistry that has been there for a decade and a half. It would be virtually impossible to replace the Johnson-Knaus relationship, one that hasn’t been seen in a driver/crew chief combination since Richard Petty and Dale Inman.
Have a question? Email me at Joseph.Wolkin@Gmail.com and make sure to check back next week when we’ll answer your questions on all things NASCAR.
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