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2019 NASCAR Driver Reviews: Jimmie Johnson

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.

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.

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?

2019 Stats:

36 starts, zero wins, three top fives, 12 top 10s, and one pole

Best finish: 3rd (Daytona, July)

Point Standings: 18th

Driver Grade: C-

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DoninAjax

Maybe he’ll get a gift from NA$CAR at Sonoma like Tony. He can add it to his fifty others. Money well spent. Great ROI.

Echo

Nope, Jimmie’s last Nascar win is behind him. It’s not the crew chief, it’s because Jimmie has never been able to drive the lighter car. He can’t get it. Rick needs two drivers for 2021. Bowman isn’t ever going to make it.

Bill B

That doesn’t change the fact that it is in NASCAR’s best interest if they can find a way to get Jimmie a win in his final season. Either a caution or a non-caution call at the right time, calling the race early due to rain if he is in the lead, overlooking a penalty on a pit stop, letting the car slide through inspection if it’s borderline, etc.. I truly believe there is no way NASCAR can blatantly fix a race (it isn’t in their best interest for teams, sponsors or fans to think such things happen) but there are enough grey areas where they can raise or lower the probability of any driver having success.

Jeremy

Oddly enough, last night I watched a YouTube video “The Crash That Ended Jimmie Johnson’s Winning Days” that actually posed an interesting theory. It points out the dramatic drop in Jimmie’s performance since the Pocono crash in June 2017 where his brakes failed going into turn 1. Prior to that race, he had won 3 races. For the next 20 races, he only had 1 top 5, and 5 top 10’s. In 2018 he had 9 top 10’s, and only 2 top 5’s.

By comparison, Chase Elliot finished 2017 (not including June Pocono race) with 5 Top 10’s and 8 Top 5’s. In 2018 he had 10 Top 10s, 8 Top 5’s, and 3 Wins.

William Byron, a rookie in 2018, scored 4 top 10’s.

Alex Bowman in 2018 notched 8 Top 10’s and 3 Top 5’s.

Considering the performance of his team-mates relative to his experience in the series, I think it’s fair to say the Camaro itself is not to blame. I think the video makes some valid points suggesting the Pocono wreck HAS affected him and is a key piece to the winless streak and sharp drop off in Jimmie’s results.

Bill B

Wow, that video sure makes a strong case. I noticed JJs was not the dominating driver he was before that wreck. It was obvious in 2016 that he was the weakest of the top 4 at Homestead and if the other 3 (Edwards, K. Busch and Logano) wouldn’t have had issues late in the race, JJ would not have won that 7th championship. However it is strange how quickly his stats dropped after that wreck, not just wins but top 5s and top 10s too. Almost like someone flipped a switch. Of course age, changes to the cars and other factors make it hard to blame the downfall entirely on that wreck but that Pocono wreck might be the number 1 factor. I would be very interested top hear what JJ would say about all of this. Maybe some day someone will ask him to weigh in.

Jeremy

I remember reading in DW’s book “A Lifetime Going Around in Circles” where DW admitted that as drivers get older, the wall starts creeping in on them. It gets into their thoughts more, in that it starts taking longer to recover from the hits. If they’re more successful, they have more to lose than to gain by pushing for that last little bit. Perhaps family/kids creep into their thoughts more than it does for a younger man. So the driver starts to (subconsciously) lift just a little bit more or a little earlier. That edge moves in ever so slightly to the more conservative side…

I also read both of Dale Jr’s book “Racing to the Finish”. In it he goes into great detail about how the hits and the concussions affected him. And how he dared NOT tell anyone for fear (actually, the reality in the garage) of being labeled “damaged goods”. Basically, if they know you’re compromised even your own team will bail on you in hopes of landing a spot with a driver who is doing well. So Jimmie may have been / is hurt more by that wreck than he is currently willing to (or can) admit to.

Bill B

Interestingly, Jeff Gordon had a very similar wreck going into turn 1 at Pocono in 2006 and he actually hit the wall on the driver’s side (that one is on YouTube as well). However 2007 was one of his best years ever. He set the record for top 10s with 30 and had a huge points lead before the reset when the Chase started. Without the reset he would have easily been the 2007 champion.

Jeremy

Reading up, and dang… 2007 Jeff would have won the Championship by 353 points. Recall his stunning season in 1998 when he won 13 races, recorded 17 straight top 5’s, ended with 7 poles, 25 top 5’s, and 27 top 10’s – en route to stomping Mark Martin by 364 points (who I think had his best year ever that season).

Interesting comparing Jimmie and Jeff in 2007:

Jimmie: Wins – 10, Top 5 – 20, Top 10 – 24, Avg. Finish – 10.8, DNF – 4.

Jeff: Wins – 6, Top 5 – 21, Top 10 – 30, Avg. Finish – 7.3, DNF – 1.

Everybody complaining about Toyota winning a 3rd of the races must have forgotten about all the years Hendricks was winning a 3rd or better of all the races… lol

Bill B

In a perfect format the driver with the best average finish should be champion. That’s why, even though I am not a K. Busch fan, I was OK with him being the champion. That’s what was best about the season long format, it heavily favored the driver with the best average finish for the entire season.

Regarding your mention of DW’s thoughts on age and how it affects a driver, I also remember him saying that when you are young you will try things that aren’t very smart on the track. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. Once you are older you know too much and aren’t willing to try things that you don’t think are going to work based on past experiences.

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