Questions Of New, Old Encircle Jimmie At The Glen

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, August 4 2019
Will a new crew chief bring back the old Jimmie Johnson on Sunday at Watkins Glen? (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

By John Sturbin/Senior Writer

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. _ Winless in over two years and in danger of missing the 2019 NASCAR Cup Playoffs, Jimmie Johnson will race at Watkins Glen International today with a new crew chief and a contract carrying an expiration date.

Which begs the questions of whether Johnson _ Hendrick Motorsports’ record-tying seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion _ is closer to reviving his sure-as-hell Hall of Fame career under the guidance of replacement crew chief Cliff Daniels…or is Jimmie merely free-falling into retirement?

Johnson alluded to the latter option during a presser late Saturday afternoon covering Daniels’ hiring in place of Kevin Meendering moments before qualifications for today’s 34th annual Go Bowling at The Glen road-race.

“There’s a lot of moving pieces to it,” said Johnson, referencing the in-season crew chief swap. “I still feel like I’ve got it. I still feel like I’m doing my job in the car. I think HMS is still playing a little catch-up. I think Chevy is playing a little catch-up. We have to do everything we know we can do in our hearts to make this team as strong as we can be. 

Cliff Daniels is now calling the shots for Jimmie Johnson. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

“You know, a year from now I might have a different opinion of myself and might say, ‘Hey, look, I don’t have it. So I’m going to hand it over to a young guy and let someone else have a shot at this thing.’ But the amount of time and effort and work I’ve put into this, my heart and soul is in it. I’ve never worked so hard in the last five years to try and stay on top of my game.”

Johnson, trim and fit as the marathoner he is, will turn 44 on Sept. 17. Despite his current drought, Jimmie has 83 career Cup victories (and 36 poles) dating to his first series win on April 28, 2002 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

Asked to peer into his future, Johnson said, “I’m here through next season and that’s when my contract will run out. I’ve got to make a decision at that point if I want to continue on. If my fire goes out or I feel like I’m not competitive…I think any driver would say that if you feel like you’re not competitive it’s time to walk away.

“So, I wouldn’t read too far into the comment but just the reality that I’m only under contract through next year. And I certainly have less years ahead of me than I’ve ever had in my career. So part of my decision-making process that will play a role is if I feel like I’m doing my job right behind the wheel.”

Informed the media in attendance certainly would focus on that contract comment, Johnson quipped, “Perfect. Run with it.”

Enter Daniels, who won the 2016 Cup Series championship as Johnson’s race engineer, in place of Meendering as the man calling the shots on Johnson’s No. 48 Ally Chevrolet Camaro ZL1.

Announced as Meendering’s replacement on Monday, Daniels’ tenure got off to a reasonable start Saturday when Johnson qualified eighth for the second of three road-course races on the Cup schedule. Johnson covered WGI’s iconic 2.45-mile/11-turn natural terrain layout at 126.124 mph in a bid to end a victory drought dating to June 4, 2017 on Dover International Speedway’s “Monster Mile.”

Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson sure could use a big day on the road on Sunday. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Andrew Coppley)

In comparison, HMS teammate and defending event champion Chase Elliott qualified on-pole here at 127.297 mph in his No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Camaro ZL1.

Scheduled for 90 laps/220.5 miles, NBC Sports Network’s telecast will begin at 2:30 p.m. (EDT) with alternative coverage on MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

With only five races remaining in the regular season to qualify for the 16-driver/10-race Playoffs, Johnson sits in 17th place in the championship standings _ 12 points out of 16th. The contenders will be determined following the Sept. 8 race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Johnson’s highest point standing thus far this year is eighth, following a ninth-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 around the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 17. Since then he has not placed higher than 13th overall.

Johnson qualified on-pole on Texas Motor Speedway’s high-banked/1.5-mile oval in Fort Worth en route to a fifth-place finish after leading a season-high 60 laps on March 31. He has logged eight top-10 results this season but started 32nd and finished a mediocre 15th on Pocono Raceway’s 2.5-mile “Tricky Triangle” last Sunday. Through the season’s first 21 race starts, Johnson has logged only one Playoff point _ironically, scored last Sunday at Long Pond, Pa.

Those circumstances sealed the decision to elevate the 31-year-old Daniels, who was summoned in-house to offer his insights into the team’s struggles prior to the road-course event at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway on June 23. A native of El Cajon, Calif., Johnson started 11th and finished 12th at Sonoma.

Johnson declined to throw Meendering under the wheels of the No. 48 hauler, saying he did not feel Meendering had “maxed-out” his time aboard the pit box as that winless streak reached 80 races.

“It’s hard to describe the environment and the spark that Cliff brought _ the deep level of conversation that he and I had, which will be to resolving issues with the car quicker,” Johnson said. “I think that spark and whatever that is carried over to the crew guys making adjustments in an emergency to get things done and just moving the ball further down the field in a shorter period of time.

“Cliff, as soon as he came in at Sonoma, we just got more done faster, faster, faster. So at some point we looked at ourselves and said, ‘Hey, what if you moved over a seat in the (hauler) lounge and was in control of it all? Can we get done faster yet?’^”

Johnson acknowledged that Meendering was not included in the swap discussions. “No he wasn’t, and of course (he was) surprised and caught off-guard,” Johnson said.  “Who I am as an individual I hate these moments. I really do and honestly and truly do feel for him.

“I know Hendrick has big plans for him and I still don’t want him to ever rule out being a crew chief. I think he certainly can be a crew chief and I know we are looking at opportunities how we can use him internally in our company. We’ve got a lot of development going on and he’s such a sharp dude, I hope he stays with us. And I know Rick’s going to do everything he can to make sure that Kevin’s taken care of very well.”

Hendrick said in a statement he had “great confidence in Cliff’s ability to win races with Jimmie and the team. He’s a natural leader and tremendously talented from both a technical and communication standpoint.  Cliff’s familiarity with Jimmie and the No. 48 team culture will benefit us a ton. He will bring the spark that’s been our missing ingredient.’’

HMS’ announcement also indicated Meendering would remain in a “senior competitive role” with the team.

Johnson and longtime crew chief Knaus split after going winless last season, ending an historic 17-year partnership that generated those record-tying seven Cup championships alongside NASCAR legends “King” Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt. The outspoken and oft-fined Knaus now is crew chief for 2018 Cup Rookie of the Year William Byron in the No. 24 Hendrick Autoguard Chevrolet. Byron is ranked 12th in the championship standings, 62 points ahead of Johnson.

“I’m having a huge moment in recognizing just how important every individual is on the team,” Johnson said. “And also the timing of all the pieces that it takes to be successful. I was at Hendrick Motorsports at the right point in time, I was in Chevys at the right point in time, I had Chad Knaus _ who I will fight to the end of the world to say he was the best crew chief to ever walk through this garage area. So the timing of all that together just gave us the opportunity to harness lightning.

“Right now we’re rebuilding on a lot of fronts and unfortunately it’s going to take a little more time. We’re still working really hard but we have a lot of variables that aren’t where they were in the mid-2000s when we had our dominance.

“Emotionally it’s tough, there’s no way around it. I look at my personal life and I’ve had long-term relationships, so this isn’t something I’m comfortable with. But in my heart I just felt like we will get back to our competitive ways faster and sooner with Cliff in that position, and that’s where we are.”

Beginning with today’s road-course race at WGI, the Cup Series regular season schedule wraps up with five unique venues. Next weekend the series will run at Michigan International Speedway’s 2-mile oval, followed by Bristol Motor Speedway’s high-banked/half-mile bull ring. Darlington Raceway’s “Too Tough To Tame” egg-shaped, 1.366-mile oval on Labor Day Weekend will lead into Indianapolis and its famed and flat 2.5-mile rectangular oval.

Johnson’s four wins at “The Brickyard” are most among active drivers and second-most all-time to retired HMS teammate/four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon’s five event victories.

“I think this weekend and Bristol a lot can happen in the points,” Johnson said.”I just hope I come out on the solid end of it, you know? So I feel there’s an opportunity for us to really get some points. Michigan, I think will be a nice test to see where we stack up as a team with this change. But I feel like the points can really shake up leaving here and leaving Bristol.

“I’d love to win. I mean, I need to win every week. I think that’s wired into me and of course, it’s the safest way to transfer. So that is first and foremost always. But I can’t expect us to go from being a top-five car to a dominant winning car in just a few short weeks.

“Yeah, the championship would probably be tough to weigh-in on right now but we still have a lot of racing left and we’ve got to crawl before we’re off the cliff.  And I definitely think we can make the playoffs. I feel that new to this role and the changes he (Daniels) will make we will continue to grow as the year wears on _ at what rate, we can argue that until we’re blue in the face. That’s what we’re hopeful Cliff can speed up in this position as crew chief.”

Johnson also addressed NASCAR’s latest reduced horsepower/increased downforce rules package as a critical technical component to his team’s conundrum.

“I feel we have a very strong core group with our team,” Johnson said.  “We get some little changes next year to the shape of our car, I think we’re in better shape. And Hendrick, if they can bring some stuff to the table I think we can get back to where we want to be.

“When you look at the stats, Hendrick as a group has been much more competitive on tracks that require a lot of downforce and essentially drag. When we get to tracks were we trim-out more we seem lose our competitiveness some. We have completely gone to the drawing board as well, and are bringing some big change ourselves.”

Johnson’s championships have been won in a variety of Hendrick Chevrolets, including the boxy/generic/unloved Car of Tomorrow. Finding the sweet spot in the Cup version of the Camaro has proven to be an elusive target even in its second season.

“I think it’s mainly the power that goes with it (the Camaro ZL1’s aero configuration),” Johnson said. ”When you have more horsepower I think your window of especially aero-drag efficiency was much bigger. Now that you’re knocking out 550 horsepower it’s amazing the aero sensitivity relative to a stop-watch. I mean, it’s bizarre to see how the lower power has changed the game.”

And quite possibly, the end game of Jimmie Johnson’s NASCAR career.


Watkins Glen International

Watkins Glen, New York

Saturday, August 3, 2019

   1. (9) Chase Elliott, Chevrolet, 127.297 mph.

   2. (24) William Byron, Chevrolet, 127.144 mph.

   3. (18) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 126.976 mph.

   4. (19) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 126.861 mph.

   5. (42) Kyle Larson, Chevrolet, 126.779 mph.

   6. (11) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 126.726 mph.

   7. (1) Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 126.300 mph.

   8. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 126.124 mph.

   9. (10) Aric Almirola, Ford, 125.928 mph.

   10. (2) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 125.926 mph.

   11. (34) Michael McDowell, Ford, 125.589 mph.

   12. (17) Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ford, 125.018 mph.

   13. (14) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 125.614 mph.

   14. (20) Erik Jones, Toyota, 125.587 mph.

   15. (4) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 125.511 mph.

   16. (37) Chris Buescher, Chevrolet, 125.505 mph.

   17. (88) Alex Bowman, Chevrolet, 125.502 mph.

   18. (41) Daniel Suarez, Ford, 125.448 mph.

   19. (12) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 125.391 mph.

   20. (95) Matt DiBenedetto, Toyota, 125.370 mph.

   21. (22) Joey Logano, Ford, 125.330 mph.

   22. (21) Paul Menard, Ford, 125.165 mph.

   23. (8) Daniel Hemric #, Chevrolet, 124.603 mph.

   24. (96) Parker Kligerman(i), Toyota, 124.557 mph.

   25. (6) Ryan Newman, Ford, 124.474 mph.

   26. (36) Matt Tifft #, Ford, 124.460 mph.

   27. (13) Ty Dillon, Chevrolet, 124.343 mph.

   28. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 124.112 mph.

   29. (47) Ryan Preece #, Chevrolet, 123.755 mph.

   30. (43) Bubba Wallace, Chevrolet, 123.547 mph.

   31. (38) David Ragan, Ford, 123.258 mph.

   32. (15) Ross Chastain(i), Chevrolet, 122.889 mph.

   33. (32) Corey LaJoie, Ford, 122.725 mph.

   34. (00) Landon Cassill(i), Chevrolet, 121.884 mph.

   35. (51) Cody Ware(i), Chevrolet, 120.436 mph.

   36. (52) Josh Bilicki(i), Chevrolet, 120.383 mph.

   37. (77) Reed Sorenson, Chevrolet, 115.640 mph.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, August 4 2019
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