Remember the lighthearted photo Jimmie Johnson posted last year when he took his junior teammates to lunch?
William Byron and Alex Bowman sat in the back Johnson’s truck—sans car seats—with the seven-time champion striking a paternal pose up front.
But in just over a year, is the 43-year-old Johnson now the one taking the back seat to the next generation of Hendrick Motorsports drivers?
On Saturday at Kansas Speedway, three of the four Hendrick Chevrolets finished in the top 10. Bowman led the charge with his third second-place finish in as many weeks. Elliott was fourth after starting from the rear for failing pre-race inspection.
And Johnson came from 21st at the start of the last stage to finish sixth—his fifth top-10 finish and second-best result in 2019.
“The first half, the first two-thirds of that race we were terrible—that’s just the bottom line,” Johnson said of the Digital Ally 400. “(Crew chief) Kevin (Meendering) made some really good adjustments to get us back in the game. We worked our way up to fourth on the second-to-the-last restart, and I lost a couple of spots there on the last restart.
“We’re still missing a chunk of speed even when we’re out there running by ourselves. There’s a pretty good gap from our car to even our own teammates’ cars. We’re missing something. We’ve just got to get on top of it. But (Saturday) was a night of perseverance, and the guys did a nice job of keeping their heads in the game and taking a 25th place car and finishing sixth with it.”
William Byron also had speed at Kansas. He qualified seventh but started third after 11 drivers failed pre-race inspection. Byron led four laps under the first caution but was mired in the field 30 laps later following a pit road infraction on Lap 62. He finished 20th.
Yes, Johnson is encouraged by the strides Hendrick has made as a whole since the start of the season, but he doesn’t feel the results have trickled down to the No. 48 team.
“We’re not the same,” Johnson said. “We’re similar in some ways but in other ways, definitely not the same. It’s tough. We know we want to get better, so we want to be aggressive and bring new stuff to the track. We’re probably on the aggressive side of trying to bring new stuff to the track and doing a nice thing for our company in developing it and proving it.
“I wish I could tell you what went wrong at Dover last weekend. It’s a miracle I even finished. But the company learned a lot from it. So I’m trying to stay patient, but years are flying by. We’ve got to get to work. We’ve got to be winning races and finishing higher in the points if we’re going to have a shot at the championship. So, hopefully, we can clean that stuff up and get where we need to be.”
It’s hard to picture Johnson as the Hendrick test driver. After coming off of the worst season of his career, he remains winless in 2019 and is 16th in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup standings. Elliott is the only Hendrick driver locked into the Playoffs with his Talladega win. In the last three races, Bowman has vaulted from 21st in points to 12th. Byron sits 19th in his second season on the tour.
Johnson was the top Hendrick Chevy at Phoenix, Bristol, Richmond and Texas. Texas Motor Speedway was Johnson’s best overall effort with his rookie crew chief Meandering. He won the pole and finished fifth. But the team has struggled to establish consistency throughout the weekend.
“The company is there,” Johnson said. “We’ve seen good speed with the No. 9 (Elliott) and the No. 88 (Bowman) recently. The No. 24 (Byron) has had some speed. We have had speed. We just haven’t had it from Friday to Sunday. We just can’t get on top of it.”
Compared with a slow start this season when Chip Ganassi Racing's Kurt Busch led the Bow-Tie Brigade, Saturday was a banner night for Chevrolet. Seven drivers from four organizations finished in the top 10—the most in any race this year and the best result since Elliott led the charge at Talladega.
Could Kansas be a harbinger for Chevy and the No. 48 team when the Cup tour rolls into Charlotte Motor Speedway this weekend? Johnson once referred to 1.5-mile track in Concord, N.C., as “our house.” That’s understandable given his record of eight wins, four poles,16 top fives and 21 top 10s in 34 points races. Johnson also leads the tour with four All-Star victories and an average qualifying effort of ninth.
Is Johnson optimistic entering "his house"?
“No,” he said emphatically. “I won 11 times at Dover and I couldn’t run on the lead lap there last weekend with all the major issues we had going on with the car. Ugh. We’ll just keep digging. What can I do?”