If you found yourself engaged in a conversation with Jimmie Johnson and at some point he said, “This is embarrassing,” you should have a good idea of what he’s talking about.
Johnson, a seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, has performed like anything but a champ in 2018. He’s had only one top-10 finish in six races (a ninth place at Fontana) his average starting position is over 24th, (his best is 14th at Las Vegas) and he has not led a single lap – again, not a single one.
Prior to Martinsville he was in the midst of a career-high 28-race losing streak.
If I were Johnson I’d be embarrassed. But then, I’m not Johnson.
Instead, the Hendrick Motorsports driver who won five consecutive titles is philosophical. He will tell you that he’s not worried, that these things happen and he will win again. He’ll point out that he did win three times last year, at Dover, Texas and Bristol.
With the departure of Lowe’s, the only sponsor he’s had in his 18-year career, at the end of the season some of the Hendrick faithful might rightfully conclude an era is coming to an end.
The veteran Johnson is now joined by a “youth corps” of drivers including Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and William Byron. They show promise but have yet to show results. Johnson is the only winner on the team.
Additionally, Chevrolet has mandated a new car, the Camaro, for MENCS competition. When a manufacturer introduces a new model at least one team has problems adapting, for whatever reason. It is inevitable.
Johnson isn’t likely to blame the Camaro solely but he does admit there is much going on within Hendrick and it’s simply going to take time to work things out.
“I know what has happened at Hendrick is to build a better product,” he said. “Growth is going on right now and I feel we are making strides.”
Johnson admits that what has happened so far in 2018 is a continuation of what occurred for most of 2017. He may have won three times but finished in the top 10 only four times in the last 10 races, wound up 10th in points and recorded seven DNFs.
“There was a lot of frustration and yes, embarrassment last year because we couldn’t get things going in the right direction,” Johnson said.
What happened to Hendrick last year – and what continues now – has struck every NASCAR team, no matter how successful.
The once all-powerful Petty Enterprises, with which Richard Petty won seven championships, didn’t win a race for the last 20 years of its existence.
Junior Johnson and Associates, Penske Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and more have all endured seasons that were productively far removed from their banner years.
Even Dale Earnhardt, another seven-time champion with Childress, experienced a mortifying winless season in 1997.
“Now I know how all those other guys feel,” said RCR crewman Will Lind at the time. “And I don’t like it.”
Perhaps Johnson is a victim of his own success. He ranks sixth all-time with 83 victories. He’s tied with Earnhardt and Petty for the most career titles. His streak of five straight championships from 2006-2010 is unprecedented and, some suggest, not likely to be matched. It has to be hard to maintain such a performance level.
The fact is that, as in all other sports, the nature of competition changes in NASCAR. Perhaps it is created by new rules, evolving technology, internal team modifications, an infusion of new talent or even the erosion of the old.
It happens – always.
“I am not sure people realize how competitive it is in the garage area,” Johnson said. “Yes, we have done some amazing things, like winning five championships in a row.
“But nothing lasts forever.”
Maybe, but Johnson is not ready to see his own competitive demise.
“I don’t worry about it all,” he said. “I know I will still win races. I know that my team and I will compete for a championship.”
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