By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Editor’s note: Motorsports Tribune will be previewing the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season for the full-time drivers in the series leading into February’s 61st annual running of the Daytona 500.
Years in Cup: 17
Career Wins: 83
Things come in threes, that’s the best way to describe Jimmie Johnson’s underwhelming 2018 campaign. Now entering his 18th full season, Johnson won’t have three things that’s been synonymous with the sport’s juggernaut — his 16-year winning streak, Chad Knaus as crew chief and Lowe’s as his primary sponsor.
One thing that’s retained from a lost season was making the playoffs for the 15th time, but it’s about the highest point he would have all season. Whether its the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 or the competition has caught up to the once unbeatable duo of Johnson and Knaus is irrelevant at this point.
Career lows in laps led (40, with the first being at the 14th stop at Pocono), average start (19.2), top-fives (two) and having 11 top-10s for the second straight season. Not only that, 2018 marked the second time in his entire career that he failed to finish in the top-10 in points. Johnson ended up a 14th in points, equaling co-owner Jeff Gordon’s worst from his rookie year in 1993.
The thriller at the Roval could’ve been a season-changing moment as he gave it his absolute all to take the lead from Martin Truex, Jr. in the final chicane, but it didn’t work out as they both collided and lost the race. Worse of all, Johnson’s heartbreaking eighth-place result and Kyle Larson just barely passing Jeffrey Earnhardt for 25th bumped the seven-time champion out of the Round of 12. It would be his penultimate top-10 result in 2018.
What’s even more astonishing is that Johnson hasn’t scored a top-five since the Coca-Cola 600, with his other top-five occurring in the eighth race at Bristol. If there’s any bright side to the season, his average finish improved by a tenth at 16.7 compared to 2017 and was at the finish in 32 races compared to 29.
NASCAR’s elite driver hopes that Speedweeks will be kind to him, which it hasn’t since his second Daytona 500 victory in 2013, especially the Advance Auto Parts Clash, which he’s been involved in a crash in each of the last seven editions, including six straight retirements that ended in 2018.
During Tuesday’s Hendrick Motorsports press conference, Johnson simply stated that everyone’s on equal grounds and will come to Daytona optimistic.
“We’re all tied for first right now. There’s not doubt about it,” said Johnson. “And then with the changes that each team makes, everybody is optimistic and excited. We’re definitely in that mix as well and excited to get going.”
Johnson’s new man who will be calling the shots, Kevin Meendering, said Johnson has the fire of chasing his eighth championship and at least equal Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip’s 84 wins that’ll put him in a three-way-tie for fourth on the all-time wins list.
“Oh, absolutely. I think he has been rejuvenated,” said Meendering. “After the struggles he had last year I think he wants to win. That is his mentality. He is going to do whatever it takes. He is going to push himself past the limit. We will be back in Victory Lane this year.”
With Lowe’s leaving Johnson, Hendrick and NASCAR altogether to ultimately join the NFL, he’ll have a brand new look and sponsor as Ally Financial have committed to a multi-year deal with the No. 48 team.
Although the reception of the brand new pink, purple and black Camaro have been mixed, Johnson said it took some convincing to buy into the bright new look.
“No, I had to buy in; but Ally had the idea and they just wanted to do something different,” said Johnson. “They used the phrase that they want to be a ‘disturbing force’ and just do things differently and they did. And, it was fun to watch that play out and read the comments to see if anybody picked-up on it and no one did until the very end. It was pretty cool.”
With the 2019 campaign having its unknowns, the El Cajon, California native is prepared for what lies ahead, including next week’s test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, to get a feel on the much anticipated new car package.
“I’m ready to get a new chapter for the No. 48 started and get to work,” said Johnson. “A lot of work has been going on. As we all know, the off-seasons usually challenging, and this one definitely is with the new rules package. And to see all four teams and crew chiefs and our engineering staff grinding and working as hard as they are together has been very, very inspiring and very cool to see.
“We get our first real shot at a test this year at the end of the week, I guess next week, in Las Vegas, so I’m excited to get to the track and get going. It was fun to announce the paint job of the car. So, we’ve been clipping along and staying busy during the off-season and I’m just excited to get going in 2019.”