WATKINS GLEN, N.Y.—With time running out for Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports could not afford to wait another week to change the dynamic on the No. 48 Ally race team.
After 21 races, Johnson sits 12 points outside the Playoff grid—a predicament the seven-time NASCAR champion hasn’t experienced since a postseason format was introduced in 2004. In 2019, Johnson hasn’t been inside the top-10 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup standings since finishing ninth in the Daytona 500.
On Monday, HMS announced Cliff Daniels had replaced Kevin Meendering as Johnson’s crew chief. The move was designed to right the ship in the short term, and the driver deserves the opportunity to maximize the time he has left behind the wheel.
“I’m here through next season and that’s when my contract will run out,” Johnson told RacinBoys.com. “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 if you’re not competitive, it’s time to walk away.
“The reality is that I’m only under contract until next year, and I certainly have less years ahead of me than I ever had in my career. Part of my decision making process, that will play a role in it, is if I feel I’m doing my job behind the wheel.”
For Johnson to thrive, he still needs the proper support behind him.
When Johnson arrived in 2001, Hendrick Motorsports was a juggernaut. The organization had won five of the previous seven championships and was surpassing Richard Childress Racing as the alpha team at Chevrolet. Under the direction of crew chief Chad Knaus, Johnson flourished in Cup following a mediocre run in the Busch Series.
In his second full season in 2003, Johnson finished second in the standings to Matt Kenseth. Three years later, the No. 48 team won the first of an unprecedented five straight championships.
“I’m having a huge moment in recognizing just how important every individual is on the team,” Johnson said. “And then also the timing of all the big pieces 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 till the end of the world and say he is the best crew chief to ever walk through this garage area.
“The timing of all that together just gave us the opportunity to harness lightning. Right now we’re rebuilding on a lot of fronts. Unfortunately, it’s just going to take more time. We’re still working really hard. We have a lot of variables that aren’t where they were in the mid-2000s when we had our dominance.”
After 17 years with Knaus, parting ways following 2018 was an emotional decision for Johnson, but it was time. Although he respects Meendering, Johnson wasn’t nearly as invested in that relationship.
Johnson noticed an uptick in performance when Daniels joined the team at Sonoma. Not only was his level of communication better with Daniels, but the crew also responded to the young engineer’s directives. That led to issues with the car being resolved faster. Over the next two weeks, Johnson finished fourth at Chicagoland and third at Daytona—his only top-five results since finishing fifth at Texas Motor Speedway in March following his only pole of the year.
“There was something there over the last three or four weeks when Cliff has been on the road with us, that as an entire group we felt we needed to pursue,” Johnson said. “Certainly, it is not a fun position to be in—and I feel bad putting Kevin in that position mid-season.
“But that spark, whatever that is, carried over to the crew guys in making adjustments and urgency to get stuff done—just moving the ball down field in a shorter period of time. As soon as Cliff came in at Sonoma, we got more done faster, faster, faster. At some point, we looked at ourselves and said, ‘Hey, what if he moved over a seat in the lounge and was in control of it all, could we get down this road faster yet?’
“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.”
Johnson doesn’t expect immediate results—particularly at Watkins Glen. He believes Daniels’ contribution will be felt when the tour returned to intermediate tracks. But on Saturday, Johnson qualified eighth, his best effort since Chicagoland Speedway in June and his best result on the 2.45-mile road course since 2014.
As Daniels eases into his new role as crew chief, Johnson is more than willing to offer a grace period. He’s optimistic the team will continue to improve. And with five races to determine the championship contenders, Johnson believes they can qualify the Playoffs.
“We still have a lot of racing left,” Johnson said. “We have to crawl before we can walk with Cliff. I definitely think we can make the Playoffs. I feel, with Cliff new to this role, and the changes he will make, I think we will grow as the year wears on.”
As the armchair analysts continue to question Johnson’s commitment, the driver is not backing down in his resolve.
“I still feel like I’ve got it,” Johnson said. “I still feel like I’m doing my job in the car. I think HMS is still playing a little catch-up. I think Chevrolet is still 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 it could be.
“A year from now, I might have a different opinion of myself and might say, ‘Hey, look, I don’t have it,’ and so I’m going to hand the wheel over to a young guy and let someone else have a shot at this thing. But the amount of time and effort and work that I 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.”