By: Toby Christie, Editor — Follow on Twitter @Toby_Christie
Wine. Cheddar cheese. Cast iron skillets.
These are things that Jimmie Johnson is aiming to be more like in 2018. All three items get better as they age. Johnson, the seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion, is coming off of the least successful season of his 16-year career.
Last season, Johnson set personal lows in top-fives (4), top-10s (11), laps led (217), average start (16.9) and average finish (16.8). However, the lackluster results weren’t for a lack of effort.
“We kept hoping every stone we turned over would help us find our problem,” Johnson said of last season. “What was so frustrating is I’ve never worked so hard in my life to get such little return. I know Chad 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 just so frustrating when you don’t get anything for it. So that was tough.”
But Johnson, 42, enters his 17th full-time season on the Cup Series tour with a fresh slate.
“This year with all the changes going on internally at Hendrick Motorsports, the debut of the new Camaro for us, I think we’re going to have a better product,” Johnson stated with confidence at Charlotte Media Tour on Tuesday. “I know we’re going to have a better product on the racetrack.”
Among the numerous tweaks HMS made: Kasey Kahne was sent packing, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. rode off into the sunset at the conclusion of last season. Rick Hendrick replaced the two veteran drivers with quick youngsters William Byron and Alex Bowman. Although the two new drivers in the HMS stable refer to Johnson as grandpa, and their combined age (44) is almost as low as Johnson’s actual age, Johnson is excited to work with the new wave of Hendrick Motorsports drivers.
“That fresh blood brings great excitement and it also brings just a different vantage point,” Johnson explained. “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, you can’t do that in the real world. Well, it’s starting to happen in the real world. That new vantage point is really helpful.”
Possibly the biggest key to Johnson’s success this year though, is how his crew chief Chad Knaus bounces back from last year’s abysmal — by their standards — season. But according to Johnson the duo will not sit back and reflect on what they’ve accomplished, they’re focused on what is left.
“I guess we’ll wait to fully embrace [what we’ve accomplished together] until we both decide to hang it up. I signed an extension last year for three years at Hendrick Motorsports, so I at least have three more,” Johnson stated.
Johnson may have at least three more seasons left, but what about Knaus? Johnson is trying to prepare himself for a potential life without the only crew chief he has had on his pit box for 16-years.
“Chad, I feel like crew chiefs have always lived in dog years, and I’m not sure where he’s going to be. I think his contract is up at the end of this year,” Johnson said. “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. I guess I’m trying to subconsciously prepare that he’ll assume a different role at Hendrick, but I really don’t want to let that in.”
Motorsport is a cruel beast. It seems like just yesterday that a young unknown driver from El Cajon, California was capturing checkered flags as a rookie in the Cup Series. One day you’re the fresh faced kid looking to prove yourself, the next you’re the proven veteran with greying hair on the perceived downward spiral.
“It’s so wild. I went from the young gun. Every time I’d see my name written, it was Rookie Jimmie Johnson. Now I’m grandpa,” said Johnson. “It’s gone fast.”
Johnson hopes and believes that his No. 48 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 will go just as fast this year.
Photo: Tim Bradbury/Getty Images