Jimmie’s Tough Times Getting Tougher So Far In ’19

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 27 2019
Jimmie Johnson took himself out of the playoffs last October with an aggressive move on Martin Truex Jr. on the final turn of the race at the Charlotte Roval. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

The 2019 season is only six races old but after watching last Sunday’s Cup Series race at Martinsville, it may not be too early to ask questions about Jimmie Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team.

Questions like: Is Johnson’s head not into racing anymore? Is his heart not into it? Was his divorce from Chad Knaus ill-conceived? Is Kevin Meendering at bad fit for Johnson as crew chief? Are Camaros to blame? Are the new rules tough to figure for an old dog?

All of the above? Perhaps.

If none of the above, then how else to explain a regression to well below average in such a rapid manner?

Johnson is 43 years old. That’s probably a bit past prime in NASCAR these days but certainly not ancient. An obsessive fitness butt and winning triathlete, he is in better shape than 99 percent of 28-year-olds.

Were it not for the flecks of gray in his beard, Johnson might still be getting carded at the liquor store.

It was just three years ago that he won his record-tying seventh Cup championship. He won five races en route to catching Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt in that category.

The following year, 2017, he won three races.

Then, splat. He fell off the face of the racing earth. Zero wins. Two top-fives. Fourteenth in points.

This year is starting out looking like last year. No wins, no top-fives and two top-10s. His average finish is 16.8. He’s had only three lead-lap finishes.

Tracks that he used to own now own him.

One of those non lead-lap finishes came at Martinsville. Johnson finished two laps off the pace at a track he used to use as a private booth in his favorite restaurant: nine wins, 19 top-fives and 30 races with laps led in 34 career starts. He’s led just four laps this season and that comes after having led just 40 all of last season.

He’s holding up journeymen Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Aric Almirola.

Both Petty and Earnhardt were still winning races during the years after turning 43.

Last year, the thought here was that the problem might have been connected to the Johnson/Knaus nexus. It had at a minimum gone stale. At the maximum, Knaus and/or Johnson was thrown by the introduction of the Camaro ZL1 and/or the way the rules and cars were evolving.

The latter has happened before and to some very good driver/crew chief combos. One year they are running for championships and the next they are having to explain problems that are causing them to finish out of the top 10.

In the year 1990, Texan Bobby Labonte won for races. He collected 19 top-fives and won the Cup championship in Gen 4 Joe Gibbs Racing Pontiacs. But in subsequent years, during an era of constant change to cars and rules, Labonte began to spiral downward. His final victory in a career which saw him win 21 times came in the final race of the 2003 season. He was 39 years old.

2001 was a rough year for Mark Martin, a driver who had up to that point, won 32 Cup races. In the preceding three years, he had won 10 races and finished second, third and eighth in points for Roush Racing.

Foundering in a winless season, Martin sat down for an short interview in the media center at Kansas Speedway. As tactfully as possible I asked him what had gone bad. His eyes stared a hole in my head before he finally said, “You don’t know a thing about racing, do you?”

I knew it is not polite to answer a question with a question.

Some others on his team were a bit more forgiving and explained that the changing equipment in Cup was giving lots of people fits. Some were adapting while others were simply not. That went for the people building the cars and for those driving them.

Johnson’s falloff seems kind of similar. The guy didn’t suddenly lose the powers that have taken him to Victory Lane 83 times.

Neither Labonte nor Martin – though neither were in Johnson’s class in Cup – never recovered their powers.

Will Johnson? Or will the history brag that no driver was able to win eight Cup championships? Those answers will likely become clearer by the time the 2019 Cup season ends at Homestead in November.

Johnson clearly has the time and the talent to start winning again. He has the want-to. But something is missing inside the No. 48 Camaro. What, exactly? I won’t ask because I don’t know a thing about racing.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, March 27 2019
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