NASCAR without a championship-caliber Hendrick Motorsports is like the New England Patriots failing to make it deep into the NFL playoffs.
The four-car Chevrolet team has been among NASCAR’s best since its founding in 1984. Throughout the decades, the organization only became better, leading the sport in innovation, drama and, of course, incredible paint schemes.
But Hendrick entered a crisis as four-time champion Jeff Gordon prepared to retire in 2015. The consistency at the front of the pack that was once the highlight of the NASCAR grid was no more. That year, Hendrick won nine races, with that number dwindling down to five, each by Jimmie Johnson, in a championship-winning 2016 season.
Since Gordon’s retirement, Johnson has entered a leadership role at Hendrick in the midst of a transition cycle during which the organization has struggled to dominate in the way it once did.
Johnson’s 2018 struggles are well documented. He failed to win a race in a season for the first time in his career as a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competitor. The lack of consistency on-track led to a crew chief change. The unproven Kevin Meendering replaced Chad Knaus on top of the No. 48 car’s pit box, with Knaus heading to the No. 24 team with William Byron. Meendering only won three Xfinity Series races with Elliott Sadler in three seasons, all of which came in 2016.
But when the Johnson-Meendering duo ran exceptionally well at Chicagoland Speedway last weekend, running in the top five and competing for the win, it showed that NASCAR still needs the seven-time champion just as much as he needs NASCAR.
Johnson, at 43 years old, can easily make national headlines still. His popularity spreads across the country. While Chase Elliott might be NASCAR’s most popular driver inside of the sport, Johnson’s reach outside of the sport far exceeds that of Elliott’s. He’s been on talk shows galore, fitness magazine covers and much more.
Days after his solid run at Chicagoland, Johnson made waves thanks to a Forbes report that says he’s the only driver to earn more than $10 million per year from salary alone (others make that amount with salary, endorsements and earnings).
Johnson sets the standard. He will continue to do just that.
But why? If Johnson isn’t even winning races, what makes him set the bar?
It’s because NASCAR needs him. NASCAR understands that without Johnson, there are few — if any — drivers who can do what he can off the track. How many drivers can bring in a full-season sponsor right after losing one of the longest-tenured partnerships in the sport? Who else can hop onto a talk show and explain to people why NASCAR is fun and different?
If Johnson can succeed on the track once again, he will elevate NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports back into the spotlight. It’s something that’s much needed as he will likely retire within the next decade (probably sooner than that). His success will put NASCAR into mainstream media once again, partially due to his prior success and also because of his great personality.
To this day, Johnson is the face of NASCAR. He’s one of a handful of drivers who can be recognized on a random street. If he can end his career on top, it will be a win for NASCAR as the sport attempts to figure out who has the personality and on-track success to take his place.