Will Jimmie Johnson improve his results following a crew chief change?
After finishing 15th last weekend at the Pocono Raceway, Jimmie Johnson is in serious danger of missing the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs for the first time in his career.
Johnson is currently 17th in the point standings, 12 points away from the two drivers tied for 15th (Clint Bowyer/Ryan Newman). Johnson enjoyed a solid day at Pocono, winning a stage in addition to his top-15 finish, but he had to rally all day, having to start at the rear of the field.
Following the race, Hendrick Motorsports pulled the trigger and the Jeff Meendering era has ended for the No. 48 team. Meendering, just the second non-interim crew chief Johnson has worked with in 17 years, has been moved to a “senior competition” role with HMS.
Meendering’s replacement is Cliff Daniels, a 31-year-old former late model driver from Virginia who worked with the No. 48 directly in an engineering role from 2015-2018 (winning a championship in 2016) and recently returned to the role at the start of the summer.
Daniels has never been recorded as a crew chief, even in an interim role, in any national touring series race; Watkins Glen International this weekend will be his first foray on the pit box.
To me, this is the dumbest possible move that Hendrick could have done to improve performance for the team. At this point in the season, the bed has been made. You can’t develop the chemistry needed for a team to be truly successful in five races, let alone with a rookie crew chief, the stress of being on the playoff bubble, and those five races being at five completely different racetracks.
While we, the public, have no true idea of how the inner workings of the team were going, their results were not lacking. Johnson has nearly a two-position advantage on performance over last year, has more top-five finishes, and is on pace to record more top 10 finishes. Sure, he still isn’t putting up Jimmie Johnsonian numbers, but it hasn’t been a complete disaster.
If Tony Stewart had let Darian Grubb go before the playoffs in 2011 instead of simply informing him that he’ll be done at the conclusion of the season, there’s no way Stewart is winning his third championship. If Hendrick had moved Alan Gustafson away from the No. 24 team in 2015 after Jeff Gordon just barely scraped his way into the playoffs, it’s doubtful that Gordon goes out a viable championship contender. And there’s a definite case to be made that both of those drivers were having worse or at least similar seasons compared to Johnson’s current one at this point in their respective seasons.
Who will master Thunder Road?
Watkins Glen International is arguably the most exciting of the three road courses that dot the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series calendar. It’s definitely the fastest, and teams can better use that speed to make passes. It’s also arguably the most forgiving, with most of the runoffs, especially in turn one, being paved instead of grass or dirt.
The last seven Cup races at the Glen have had seven different winners, with it being mixed between road course aces such as Marcos Ambrose/AJ Allmendinger and lesser road course drivers such as Chase Elliott.
Elliott is a solid pick for this weekend. He’s not known as a standout road course driver, but he qualified fourth at Sonoma Raceway this year before an engine failure and finished sixth at the Charlotte ROVAL last year. Another decent pick, as always, is Kyle Busch, who has the shortest odds this weekend. Busch is a former winner at the Glen and finished second just this June at Sonoma, so he’s expected to show up and be a contender this weekend.
What will come of Tyler Reddick?
Reddick, the defending NASCAR Xfinity Series champion who has been even better this season for RCR, seems to be the next in line as far as moving up. And unlike the two drivers on his tier in NXS competition, he isn’t really tied down to anybody following this year. Christopher Bell has signed with JGR through next year, while it’s doubtful that Cole Custer would leave the team his father is an executive for.
Childress made it clear in his interview that he wants Reddick in a Cup car in 2020, but can’t commit to that just yet. RCR has sponsorship, huge companies such as Dow and Bass Pro Shops being major partners. But do they have enough to afford the expenses of starting a third Cup team?
That has been the bane and the benefit of the charter system. Charters make it harder for teams to disappear overnight, but they also make it harder for a team to expand from scratch.
One avenue Childress could take would be a buying/merger with Richard Petty Motorsports. RPM is already based on RCR property and the idea of officially putting the No. 3 and No. 43 under the same roof is a tantalizing offer for future sponsors. It’s unclear where exactly that would leave Bubba Wallace, who has a contract through the end of next year, but it’s unlikely RCR does something like this without Reddick being the ultimate beneficiary.
Childress could also try to farm Reddick out to purgatory, which is a synonym for a back-marker with RCR support, but nobody should be resigned to a fate so cruel.
What will come of Brandon Jones?
This weekend will mark Brandon Jones’ 124th NASCAR Xfinity Series start, where he will be competing for just his seventh top-five finish in his career.
There has been a lot of talk about Todd Gilliland’s performance this season, not the least of which came from me. But “that other unrelated Jones boy” is on a completely different level as far as failing to meet expectations.
Gray Gaulding, he of the Gauldashian clan and current SS Green Light Racing driver, has a higher average finish than Jones does. Yes, a Bobby Dotter owned-team has had more success this season than a Joe Gibbs owned-team. If it wasn’t for stage racing, Gaulding would be ahead of Jones in points and thus in the playoffs instead of being 101 points back.
Matt Tifft moving up to the Cup level has not been a successful move at all for either himself or new team Front Row Motorsports, and even before that I’ve never been impressed with the kid. But when he was with Joe Gibbs Racing and RCR (much like Jones is/has been), at least he had a degree of success on the NXS level.
Last year, Tifft had an average finish of 12.6 in RCR equipment and finished sixth in points. He had the same number of top-five finishes in a year that Jones has had in three-and-a-half years. Jones’ season so far has him with an average finish of 17.1 (!) and, while comfortably in the playoffs barring a surprise win, mired in the final playoff cut-off spot. Oh, and this is after having just three, three, top 10 finishes in 2017 in RCR equipment. Repeat: three top 10s in a season. With a Cup team.
It seems like, after four seasons of NASCAR, it might be time for Jones to move on. Sure, his father might be the president of Rheem, which by default makes Jones a hot commodity, but he can’t move up to Cup on that. Would a team really pass up on a veteran like Justin Allgaier for a guy who couldn’t finish in the top 10 in 10% of his races in an NXS season with a Cup team’s equipment and resources?
And with Truck stars such as Brett Moffitt and Ross Chastain potentially looking to move up next year along with future stars such as Hailie Deegan and Derek Kraus coming in the next three, is there ever going to be a point where a Cup team is going to take an honest chance on Jones? I think not.