By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
For Jimmie Johnson, having to sit at the championship banquet last year and watch another driver being celebrated up on the championship stage after having been there the year before only served to further fuel his desire to make it back up there for a record eighth time.
In one of his worst seasons of his storied Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career, Johnson won three races and made the playoffs, but found himself eliminated in the third round at Phoenix, dropping to a final 10th place finish in points. The season also resulted in the lowest number of top-five and top-10 finishes in his career.
“I left there (the banquet) pissed off,” said Johnson. “That sucked (laughter). I knew after we got eliminated from the Round of 8, I knew our championship hopes were closed. To relive the highlight reels, all of that, it’s like, Damn, I want to be that guy. I want to get back and be that guy.
“That was a huge shot in the arm of adrenaline to get to work. I literally started wearing Rick out on the phone, What do we need to do? Where do we need to start?”
Since the end of the 2017 season, Hendrick Motorsports has gone through a whirlwind of changes in order to right the ship for the 2018 season, from driver changes to car model changes and others.
Both Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kasey Kahne left the team at the end of the 2017 season, making Johnson the elder statesman at Hendrick this season. Alex Bowman and William Byron have come on board to join Johnson and Chase Elliott in the team’s four-car stable.
The Chevrolet teams will have a new hot road to take to the track as the Chevrolet SS went by the wayside at the end of last year and the sleek new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 model will be their new chariot of choice.
In addition, Hendrick has made several internal changes to try and increase their performance even further in 2018.
“The ’17 season was so hard on us the second half of the year, I literally came back from the banquet, it was time to dig in, work on any and all areas,” said Johnson. “Much more work done this off-season due to the circumstances of where we finished. Then obviously a lot of change from rules to the new Camaro, the internal restructuring that’s going on at Hendrick. You add that with the driver lineup, this is the most change I’ve ever seen at Hendrick Motorsports in my 16 seasons competing there. It’s a big year for the company.”
With a renewed fire under Johnson and the No. 48 team for 2018, other teams and drivers may have to watch out. This could be the year we see Johnson climb higher up the all-time wins list and finally eclipse Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty by claiming an eighth championship.