Jimmie Johnson is a lock for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and anyone who doubts that should probably do some research. He’s a 7-time champion in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series (NMECS), tied for the most in the history of the sport with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. That’s some pretty good company to be in. He’s also tied for sixth on the all-time wins list in NASCAR’s top series. Last season he earned his 83rd win to tie the great Cale Yarborough and close to only one win behind Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison for a tie for fourth.
Following his 83rd career win back in June of 2017, he began a winless streak that has now reached a career-high, 25 races. During this streak that began last season and has extended into the first two races of this season, the numbers are a bit concerning.
He has an average finishing position of 19.96 during the slump, which is roughly seven positions worse than his career average. During the 2017 season, he set a career-worst average finishing position, with a 16.8. In addition, he also set a career worst in starting position with a 16.9 and led a career-low of only 217 laps. In 2016 he set a career-low for top-10s, with 16. He then set a new career-low in 2017 when he only earned 11 top-10s. Plus, over the last 25 races, Johnson has amassed ONLY one top-5.
In 2017, he also tied his career-high for DNFs, with seven. A few of the DNFs weren’t totally his fault, they can be blamed on being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but many are still his fault. It’s tough to count the DNFs at Daytona and Talladega as his fault because being caught up in the big one isn’t usually a choice and there isn’t usually much you can do about it, except, if you run at the very front of the pack. If you’re running first, second, or third, you are much more likely to escape the wrecks. He hasn’t had strong enough cars to run near the front, which is unsettling.
The Youth Movement
“The Youth Movement” could be one of the reasons for his decline in performance in recent years. Over the past couple of seasons he’s lost three of his long-time teammates.
In 2016, long-time teammate and friend Jeff Gordon retired from the sport and took his place in the broadcast booth. Gordon has the third-most wins all time in the NMECS (93) and had been a key teammate who provided knowledge and experience to Johnson throughout his career. Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired from the sport in 2017 and also picked up a job in the broadcast booth. He had 26 career wins and was another important teammate for Johnson.
Towards the end of the 2017 season, Hendrick Motorsports announced that they would not retain Kasey Kahne moving forward. Although Kahne only has 18 career victories, he’s another veteran of the sport who has shared knowledge and experience with Johnson.
In the past three years Johnson has picked up three new teammates who are all currently under the age of 25. Chase Elliott (22 years old), now in his third season, Alex Bowman (24 years old), now in his third full season, and William Byron (20 years old) who is in his first NMECS season. While the three have incredible upside and potential to be great, they don’t have the experience and wealth of knowledge that Gordon, Earnhardt Jr. and Kahne had. Johnson spends much more of his time now mentoring his younger teammates than he does gaining information from them.
The Chevy ZL1
The 2018 season is the first that features the Chevrolet ZL1 as the Chevy model of race car. They changed over from the Chevy Impala SS which had been in the series since 2007. Johnson won six of his seven series titles while driving the Chevrolet’s Impala SS.
The Toyota drivers last season experienced a slow start to 2017 as they had to adjust to their new model of Toyota Camry. They won only one of the first ten races. But after they figured everything out and worked out the kinks, they went on to win 15 of the final 26 races and took home a championship.
Although Johnson’s struggles began last season, this season’s struggles may be due in part to not having figured out the new ZL1 yet. Johnson, along with the entire Hendrick stable, may just need some time and experience in the car to get used to it.
What should we expect?
The way I see it, there’s two ways Johnson’s season can go from here. Whichever way it goes, could define how his career finishes.
1. We could see the Jimmie Johnson that we’ve all been hoping and waiting for, the 7-time champ who makes things happen. He could find his way with the new ZL1, get back to his dominating form, lead laps week-in and week-out, and stun his competitors with his mastermind Crew Chief, Chad Knaus.
2. The youth movement can continue to push Jimmie Johnson towards the back of the pack. The younger generation of drivers such as Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, William Byron, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Ryan Blaney, Bubba Wallace Jr., Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon and Kyle Larson all currently sit ahead of Johnson in the season standings. If the trend of Johnson struggling behind the young guns continues, they may just push him towards early retirement.
Featured image courtesy of LAT Photographic
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