Jimmie Johnson needed a change of pace. In 2018, he experienced the first winless season of his full-time career in the NASCAR Cup Series. Johnson also matched or surpassed career lows in top fives and top 10s for a single year.
To get the No. 48 team back on track, Hendrick Motorsports decided to split up Johnson and his longtime crew chief, Chad Knaus. Kevin Meendering became Johnson’s new crew chief for 2019, while Knaus moved over to the No. 24 car with William Byron. It was Hendrick’s hope that a new man on the pit box would help Johnson return to his winning ways.
It didn’t happen. Not only did Johnson struggle through another winless season, he also missed the playoffs for the first time ever. Up until this year, Johnson had been the only driver to participate in every postseason championship battle. That streak ended during another difficult season during which Johnson and the No. 48 team looked like a shell of their former selves.
If there was a high point to Johnson’s 2019 season, perhaps it was Speedweeks at Daytona International Speedway. He won the exhibition Clash at Daytona International Speedway and drew some ire from drivers and fans for triggering a major crash that wiped out most of the field. In the Daytona 500 it was Johnson who got swept up in several crashes, only to battle back to a top-10 finish in a torn-up car.
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) February 18, 2019
It soon became clear that the replacement of Knaus with Meendering would not provide a quick fix. The No. 48 team picked up right where it left off in 2018 – earning decent finishes but with little ability to lead laps and contend for wins. Through the first nine races of 2019, Johnson’s only top-five result was a fifth-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway. In that race, Johnson started from the pole (his only one of 2019), led 60 laps and collected 10 stage points. That’s not a bad day at all. Yet consider that Johnson has earned seven wins, 16 top fives and 22 top 10s while leading over 11,000 laps in 33 career starts at Texas. The spring Texas race was arguably Johnson’s best performance of 2019. But for the No. 48 team of old, such a performance would have been just another day at the office.
To make matters more frustrating, all of Johnson’s Hendrick teammates began to show improvement after slow starts. Chase Elliott scored a victory at Talladega Superspeedway and re-established himself as HMS’ best championship hopeful. Alex Bowman reeled off three consecutive second-place finishes before earning his first Cup win at Chicagoland Speedway. Byron climbed his way up the points standings slowly but surely, earning some good finishes at tracks where he had struggled a year ago.
Johnson, on the other hand, just seemed stuck. No matter what they tried, the No. 48 looked like a 10th- to 15th-place team most weeks.
Not even visits to some of Johnson’s old stomping grounds yielded any victories. He finished a lousy 24th at Martinsville Speedway and could only muster a 14th at Dover International Speedway. A top 10 at Charlotte Motor Speedway was better, but these were all tracks where Johnson seemed unbeatable not long ago.
These discouraging results left Johnson vulnerable in the playoff standings. Back to back top fives at Chicagoland and Daytona vaulted him to 13th in points, but after that the wheels fell off. A pair of 30th-place finishes in the next two races dropped him back below the cut line, and with the postseason looming, Hendrick made another change: Meendering was relieved of his duties as crew chief and replaced by Cliff Daniels, who took over at Watkins Glen International.
In his first race with Daniels, Johnson had a nice run going until encountering trouble on lap 61. While battling for position, Ryan Blaney made contact with Johnson and spun the No. 48 around in the carousel. An uncharacteristically angry Johnson confronted Blaney about the incident on pit road after the race. Although some harsh words were exchanged, Johnson and Blaney had no other incidents during the rest of the year.
The following week’s race at Michigan International Speedway proved to be a much bigger problem for Johnson. Very early in the race, the No. 48 slapped the wall and Johnson lost several laps in the pits making repairs. He finished in 34th and dropped 12 points below the playoff cut line. It was a blow from which Johnson could not recover. Lackluster performances in the next two races and a crash in the regular season finale made the once unthinkable a reality. Johnson was not a part of the 16-driver playoff field in 2019. It was no doubt a difficult moment for the former champion, but as usual, Johnson was gracious in defeat.
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) September 8, 2019
Johnson’s confidence in his team appeared to pay off in the next few weeks. With Daniels on the pit box, he earned four straight finishes of 11th or better. But just as quickly as the No. 48 team appeared to be building momentum, the tide turned against them once more. In the last six races of 2019, Johnson finished worse than 30th three times. These results included another disappointing performance at Martinsville and a crash at Talladega Superspeedway. Even in the return trip to Texas, where Johnson looked strong and led laps again, he hit the wall and dropped out of the race with a mechanical failure as a result.
So what was it that went so wrong with the No. 48 team this season? Perhaps Hendrick was not as strong this year as it was earlier in the decade, and Johnson did have his share of bad luck. But the real problem was that Johnson and his team failed to do the two things they have done so well for over 15 years: elevate their performance late in the season and close out races with good finishes. When Johnson needed strong performances the most, he and his team were just not capable of earning those results. It’s almost unbelievable to see it unfold, but the numbers don’t lie. The No. 48 team has not been clicking for the last two years, and neither Knaus nor Meendering nor Daniels found a solution.
Days after the championship race, Johnson announced that 2020 would be his last year as a full-time Cup driver. Considering how rough the last two years have been, his chances of winning a record eighth championship at NASCAR’s highest level look slim. Even winning another race seems questionable for the No. 48 right now. But Johnson is no stranger to pulling off seemingly impossible feats of excellence in a racecar. Would anyone really be shocked to see him in victory lane once again?
36 starts, zero wins, three top fives, 12 top 10s, and one pole
Best finish: 3rd (Daytona, July)
Point Standings: 18th
Driver Grade: C-