Did You Notice? … Jimmie Johnson’s winless drought is now at 79 races? The 83-race Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series winner and seven-time series champion has never had a slump like this before. A driver who won at least two Cup races every year since 2002 has gone winless since June 2017.
To make matters worse, Johnson now sits on the outside of the playoffs looking in. A water pump and power steering failure ruined his Sunday (July 21) at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, leaving him 30th, 12 laps off the pace. He’s now 17 points behind Clint Bowyer in 16th and may need a victory in order to qualify for the 2019 postseason.
But getting that win may not be so easy when we look back at history. I looked back at the sport’s 10 winningest drivers to see if they ever had a drought which lasted this long. The answers I got left me uneasy about Johnson’s ability to recover.
NASCAR’S ALL-TIME WIN LEADERS
Richard Petty (200 wins): Petty holds one of many NASCAR records by going 18 straight years with a victory (1959-1977). From 1959-1984, he never went more than 44 races without a win.
But when that final victory came for Petty, number 200 at July 4, 1984 at Daytona, few would have believed how quickly the dropoff came. The King aged quickly, earning just 16 more top-five finishes in his final eight years driving full-time. The magic simply never came back; he fell into a winless drought for the final 241 starts of his career.
David Pearson (105 wins): Pearson had a 61-race victory drought early in his career. But once the wins started coming, he earned at least one per season from 1964-1980. After earning that 105th and final trophy in Darlington, though in the 1980 CRC Chemicals Rebel 500? Pearson went six years and 55 races without a win. He finally hung it up for good following a failed comeback effort in 1989.
Jeff Gordon (93 wins): Gordon won in his 42nd career Cup Series start, the 1994 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. After that, it took nearly 15 years for him to have a drought that lengthy, going 47 starts without a win from 2007-2009. A longer drought of 66 races followed, from 2009-2011. But Gordon never approached the level of slump Johnson is going through right now. And even with that 66-race slump, Gordon earned just 11 victories after that during the final five years of his career. It’s a far lower output from somebody that tied the modern-era NASCAR record with 13 race wins in a season back in 1998.
Darrell Waltrip (84 wins): Waltrip is Petty, part II. He won in his 50th career start and then went 15 straight years in the Cup Series with at least one victory (1975-1989). No other drought came close to his 0-for-50 beginning in Cup… and then, suddenly, Waltrip started falling off a cliff.
His final race win was in the 1992 Southern 500, a rain-shortened gamble on fuel mileage that kept Davey Allison from taking the Winston Million. Waltrip raced eight more years after that, in a variety of situations but never reached victory lane again. A whopping 0-for-251 finish to his Cup career tarnished a track record that’s still one of the best in NASCAR history.
Bobby Allison (84 wins): Allison’s career is harder to judge because it got cut short. Head injuries suffered in a scary Pocono wreck back in the summer of 1988 sidelined him for good just months after winning the Daytona 500. But in 28 years of competing in the Cup Series, Allison never had a drought that matched Johnson’s 79 races. The closest he came was 67 races without a victory, a clunker that included two winless seasons in 1976 and 1977. But Allison was struggling with poor equipment at the time, driving the outclassed AMC Matador for Roger Penske in ’76 before switching to his own team. He didn’t get it back together until pairing up with legendary car owner Bud Moore in 1978.
Cale Yarborough (83 wins): Yarborough won in his 78th career start, his initial drought coming awfully close to what Johnson is going through now. But in what’s becoming a familiar pattern… once Yarborough won, he didn’t stop until his skills were debilitating to the point of retirement. He went the final 44 races of his career (three years) in part-time rides without a victory, marking his longest droughts at the beginning and end of an incredible three decades of NASCAR competition.
Dale Earnhardt (76 wins): Earnhardt’s another one who’s tough to judge because his career ended in tragedy, turn 3 of the last lap in the 2001 Daytona 500. But up to that point, Earnhardt has never had a winless streak longer than 59 races. He’d gone through just one full-time winless season in his career (1997) and was second in the championship the year before he died.
Kyle Busch (55 wins): Exempt cause he’s still active.
Rusty Wallace (55 wins): Finally! Someone who had a winless streak longer than Johnson has now and actually recovered to reach victory lane. Wallace was 0-for-105 from mid-2001 to the spring of 2004, finally breaking through with a 55th career victory at Martinsville Speedway.
And then? That was all she wrote. Wallace was retired by the end of the following year, making the Chase for the Championship but never becoming a serious factor in the title chase. It was a drought from which he never fully recovered.
So there you have it. The running theme here is clear – and scary for Johnson. Few of these drivers ever really had a slump as long as he’s going through now unless they were on the clear downside of their career. And when they did? These Hall of Famers never recovered, trying helplessly to recapture past glory until they were finally convinced to hang up the helmet.
Every driver is different. Johnson is in the first year with a new crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports and remains in top physical condition. But it’s clear over the past two-plus seasons that something is suddenly missing at the No. 48. And how long will Johnson want to stick around (his contract is up in 2020) trying to chase the magic he once had? Is it easier to admit it’s no longer there and move on? In some ways, potential title aside there’s nothing left for him to prove.
It will be interesting to see where he goes from here.