I’m not sure Jimmie Johnson ever thought this scenario would arise. At 42 he is the graybeard – or grandfather, grizzled veteran, whatever – of the Hendrick Motorsports team.
It was just 16 years ago he was the team’s newcomer, its freshman driver on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. The native Californian got his break when Jeff Gordon, at the time a Hendrick veteran, saw his potential and convinced team owner Rick Hendrick to sign him.
I’m thinking Johnson has asked himself, “How did 16 years go by so fast?”
For Johnson, they were a very successful 16 years. Heck, upon review they were a spectacular 16 years.
Johnson amassed 83 victories and won a record-tying seven championships, including an unprecedented five in a row from 2002-2006. His last title came in 2016 – when he was 40 years old – and he’s bee trying to notch a NASCAR record eighth even since.
As mentioned, the Hendrick landscape has changed. Gordon retired after the 2016 season and 2017 was Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s last year as a full-time Cup competitor.
They were marquee names; drivers who were among the most popular in NASCAR. Earnhardt Jr. was the most popular.
All are well under 30 years old. Which means that Johnson is now the team’s elder statesman and mentor.
The new roles don’t concern him.
“The fresh blood brings great excitement and it also brings just a different vantage point,” Johnson said. “When you look at William, for the longest time, like, using our simulator, I watch something happen with another driver, that’s just a gaming way to go about it. It’s starting to happen in the real world. That new vantage point is really helpful.
“I am excited to have all this new stuff going on around us, from rules internally at Hendrick, the new car, my teammates. I’ve taken a notebook and pen everywhere I go because everywhere I look, there’s something to learn. That’s exciting.”
Traditionally, most drivers express optimism when they are introduced to new things, such as teammates and car models.
But inwardly most have been concerned mainly with their own performances. For Johnson’s part, if he’s going to win an eighth championship he is going to have to do better than he did in 2017 – new circumstances notwithstanding.
Last year Johnson posted a record of three wins, four top-5 finishes and 11 finishes among the top 10. He wound up 10th in points.
Those numbers would be very good for most competitors but for Johnson they were subpar. The last time he came away with three victories was in 2003. The number of finishes among the top five and the top 10 were the lowest of his career.
“We kept hoping every stone we turned over would help us find our problem last year,” Johnson said. “What was so frustrating is I’ve never worked so hard in my life to get such little return.
“I know Chad (Knaus, crew chief), can say the same and the team can. The efforts they put in, just mind-boggling.
“I’m so happy I have a group of guys to do that, to do anything possible. It was just so frustrating when you don’t get anything for it. So that was tough.”
Surrounded by so many things “new,” it might be difficult to determine what might happen to the “old” Johnson in 2018.
He is signed with Hendrick through 2020 so he has three more years left as “the old guy.”
Knaus, Johnson’s right-hand man for 16 years, might be a free agent at the end of 2018. If this is his last season at the helm of Johnson’s team, well, that is yet another “new.”
“I guess we’ll wait to fully embrace it until we both decide to hang it up,” Johnson said. “I feel like crew chiefs have always lived in dog years and I’m not sure where he’s going to be.
“Of course I want him to push on. I keep telling him, ‘Man, I started this with you, I want to finish it with you.’ I’ll try to stretch him as long as I can.”
To repeat: New teammates, new car and a crew chief that might be a lame duck. And on top of it all, Johnson is the “old man” at Hedrick.
Does all of this really matter for Johnson in 2018?
“No, that doesn’t change anything,” Johnson said. “My desire to be competitive, my desire to be a champion, my desire to win races, has never wavered.
“That’s who I am, it’s what I am.”
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