Over the weekend, it was announced that Crew Chief Chad Knaus agreed to a two-year contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports to remain atop the pit box for the No. 48 team through the 2020 season tying him to driver Jimmie Johnson who signed a three-year contract extension last year. Johnson, a seven-time champion, has spent his entire career with Knaus and the two are in the midst of a career-long winless streak of 42 races.
This has certainly been a trying year for everyone at HMS as all four drivers have yet to lock themselves in a playoff position with a win, in fact the lone win for the Chevrolet manufacturer came at the season’s opening race in the Daytona 500 for RCR’s Austin Dillon. The team’s haven’t yet figured out the new body and design of the car, at least enough to keep up with the blue ovals who dominated the first-half of the season and now the recent surge of the Toyota’s led by Kyle Busch & Martin Truex Jr.
The 42-year-old Jimmie Johnson has been stuck at 83 career wins since last June when he won his third and final win of 2017 at Dover after taking back-to-back races early in the season at Texas & Bristol. Johnson is one win shy of tying Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison for fourth place on the all-time in the leader board, both Hall of Famers ended their career with 84 wins.
Johnson is currently 14th in the playoff standings with a 54-point cushion, fellow HMS teammates are trailing behind him above the cut-line as Chase Elliott is 15th 37 points to the good and Alex Bowman holds the cut-off spot with a 19-point advantage and 7 races remaining in the regular season. Kyle Larson is the only Chevy driver outside of Dillon who is locked in with a win, with a real buffer as the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Team have seemed to wrapped their head around the new car faster than the competition and have run up front more often and securing a 137-point advantage. As good as Larson has been and as close as he has got on some of his best tracks this year, even he has yet to win signaling just how far Chevy has fallen in year one with the new body.
Back to Johnson, the team’s inability to have the speed needed to compete off the truck has impeded their chance to run up front and contend for races this season. Johnson’s average start position of 19.7 isn’t going to get it done, but in comparison their average finish of 15.5 despite how they have looked some weeks, is impressive given all the obstacles that team has faced this season and continued poor starting position. Johnson’s focus and determination is as strong as it’s ever been and the way he handles the questions and the attention is something to marvel at with all the negative media attention he has been faced with and all the “washed up” remarks that have been thrown around social media.
Johnson’s best finish came earlier this season at Bristol where he finished 3rd, a track the Cup Series will return to in just a few short weeks. The good news is with seven weeks to go before the playoffs, the 48 team still has several chances to win a race and lock themselves into the playoffs.
None of the remaining tracks in the regular season come on the mile-and-a-halves and a few are tracks Jimmie has owned throughout his career. First up is this weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the 48 has three career wins at the track (’03 sweep, ’10) and has finished in the top-10 in three of the last five races on the flat one-mile track including last July. After this week the series heads to the Tricky Triangle of Pocono where Johnson also has three career wins with his last coming in 2013. Then comes road course Watkins Glen, one of the three tracks where the 48 has never reached Victory Lane at including Chicago and Kentucky.
The final four races of the regular season include Michigan where Johnson has one career win (2014), Bristol where Johnson has two wins (2010 & 2017), Darlington for the Southern 500 where he has three career wins (’03, ’04 and ’10) and lastly the regular season ends with the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway where Jimmie has kissed the bricks four times in his career (’06, ’08, ’09 and ’12).
Through the final seven races, Johnson and Knaus will have the chance to knock off that win they’ve been scratching and clawing for and it may take a strategy play or gutsy call to get it done, but I do have faith in the 48 to put a win in the bank and lock themselves in for the playoffs. If I had to pick one race I’d go with the regular season finale at Indianapolis where Hendrick Motorsports recorded their last victory with Kasey Kahne last season. If he rides the momentum of a win into the playoffs, then look out. Especially with tracks like Dover and Martinsville on the schedule for the playoff rounds as I’m convinced Jimmie could win those races in a Chevy Silverado, that’s how dominant he has been at those places.
With long-time sponsor Lowe’s leaving the sport after this season ending their relationship with the 48 team that has spanned his entire career, a lot of questions will remain after this season. The team will surely have no doubt filling the 36-race docket with a new primary sponsor, likely multiple, but it will be strange to see Jimmie hop into a car without the Lowe’s brand on the hood. One question/remark that I will not buy however, is the fact that seven-time Jimmie Johnson is done. I refuse to believe it. He’s too focused and too elite of a driver to go out without a fight. The mindset has remained sharp and the determination has not wavered.
Maybe Johnson doesn’t reach the final four this year with just how locked in the “Big Three” have been and the point lead they have built themselves, but next year or the following season Johnson will surely contend for a record eighth title. Once Knaus and the rest of the Chevy guys can wrap their head around the new Camaro ZL1 body and the engineering to get the most out of the car each lap, then look out. Johnson can go out like his buddy Jeff Gordon and reach the final four at Homestead in his final season and perhaps even go out on top if he is planning to retire on the expiry of his contract after the 2020 season. Almost two decades of dominance out of Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team, and he’s not done just yet despite what many “haters” want to lead you to believe.
Follow Frank Pimentel on Twitter: @FrankBostonTank