DARLINGTON, S.C.—Jimmie Johnson didn’t want the racing to end after the Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Although his 19th-place finish didn’t help his cause in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Playoffs, under the direction of crew chief Cliff Daniels, Johnson is convinced the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team is trending in the right direction despite sitting 18th in the standings.
His sixth-place qualifying effort for the Southern 500 is a great place to start.
“We have a lot of great energy inside the 48 team, a lot of optimism, a lot of hunger, a lot of hard work going into things,” Johnson said. “I really wanted to keep on racing.”
Fresh from an off week in Colorado and cleanly shaven, Johnson embraced the annual throwback weekend at Darlington Raceway. Sporting a tribute livery to his off-road racing roots, the driver reminisced about being stranded in the desert during the Baja 100 and recovering his long lost truck.
Johnson’s earliest days in racing not only sharpened his survival skills but it also prepared him for whatever challenge came next—including his battle to return his squad to the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team of old.
Still, seven titles and 83 Cup wins have not discouraged the detractors from questioning Johnson’s desire. For anyone that doubts the soon-to-be 44-year-old’s determination, think again. When asked if he’s jealous of David Ragan hanging up his helmet at 33 to spend more time with his wife and daughters, Johnson replied, "Hell no. I can't wait to get back on top!”
While Johnson wasn’t back on top during practice for the Southern 500 on Friday, he posted the fifth fastest lap off the truck—certainly a solid platform to build on.
“I feel like we’ve had many Top 5’s slip away here in the last six to eight weeks which is unfortunate,” Johnson said. “So, we’ve just got to clean that up and a lot of it falls on me just making mistakes and trying too hard on the track. I need a good clean lap to remind myself every lap here to race the track and not race the competitors and we’ll see how it goes.”
Johnson’s qualifying lap was just .214-seconds off of his teammate William Byron who posted the pole-winning lap of 172.487mph. During Johnson’s current slump, several of his peers have come to his defense.
“When you are watching somebody like that dominate, you never expect to see them in this position, being winless for as long as he’s been, at risk of not making the Playoffs and having a chance to win the Championship,” Kyle Larson said. “Obviously, I’m a huge Jimmie Johnson fan. I want to see him either run well these next two races to get himself in a better points position or win. I would like to see him just win to shut everyone up.”
Johnson could not have agreed more.
“I can’t wait to shut-up the keyboard warriors that are out there,” Johnson said. “The people that are close to me and the people on my race team know the truth. They know the story. They’ve been working hard on it and when you work hard, wins will come.
“So, that’s where I find my peace. I know all the effort I’ve put into this program and for what my guys have put into the program.”
The results Johnson has witnessed in the three races since Daniels was officially named crew chief—and the previous six weeks prior when he joined the team in an advisory position—has offered the driver hope. He’s encouraged with how the team is performing and what Daniels has prepared for the future.
“We are literally counting the weeks that Cliff has been at the helm,” Johnson said. “He’s got another week under his belt. He’s able to better understand our cars and our equipment and all that stuff at a deeper level. I think this weekend it’s shown off the truck that our cars have more details put into them on the No. 48 car.
“And our guys had enough time to get the Indy stuff really dialed-in. I walked in the transporter today and they were getting back some report and the status of our new car and what it’s downforce potential is and capability and the guys are just buzzing over that. Weeks off are helpful. But, I’m torn. I am mixed on it because the last race didn’t go as we wanted. There’s no better way to fix a poor performance than following-up with a good one and getting on-track.”
Johnson leads all current Cup drivers with three wins at Darlington. His four Brickyard 400 victories are just second to Jeff Gordon’s five. If for some reason Johnson’s streak of 15-consecutive Playoff berths ends after the Brickyard 400 next weekend, the 20-year NASCAR veteran doesn't see that as a bad thing. The pressure will be lifted off of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team and Johnson can set his sites on 2020.
“It’s a story,” Johnson said. “I get it. Believe me, I want to keep my Playoff streak alive and I want to be a factor in the Playoffs. I want to know what the outcome is, but it’s not that I want to hurry up and get through it and have it go away. I want to race. I want to get out there and earn another victory and earn my way into these Playoffs. That’s what we’re all here for.
“So, my optimism again, comes from that I just know where this team is right now and I know where it’s going. Unfortunately, we don’t have any more time left, but we’re going to finish up the year strong and that brings me a lot of excitement regardless of how the Playoffs unfold.
“It’s really about building this team and getting it right for the next year—for the 2020 season and getting back to Victory Lane. The goals kind of stay the same but we all know the pressure is looming on us heavily right now to make the Playoffs. If that pressure does go away, then I think we will be able to speed up the learning process amongst each other. I hope it doesn’t go away because that means we made the Playoffs and have to stay alive in the Playoffs. We’d much rather have this pressure and keep evolving as a team than have it go away.”