Can Johnson play spoiler at Dover International Speedway on Sunday?

Can Johnson play spoiler at Dover International Speedway on Sunday?
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Jimmie Johnson appeared to have a bit more spring in his step on Friday following the announcement that Ally would continue sponsoring the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet through 2023.    

But the seven-time champion remained noncommittal whether he would be the driver behind the wheel after his contract expires next season.

Like any elite racer, Johnson carefully contemplates his next move. At 44, Johnson is more concerned with how his team is performing in the present.

“I don’t have a timeline,” Johnson said. ‘I personally know that I would like every day that I can before I need to make that decision. There’s a lot of things to look at with the Gen-7 car coming and the way our team is performing and what we are building.

“And, I might want to go longer than 2023. I just don’t know. And I have not put much time and effort into (the decision).”

Johnson has put effort into righting the No. 48 ship. For most of 2019, Johnson has been on the outside of the Playoff grid looking in. But the decline did not start overnight. After three wins in the first 13 races of 2017—including Johnson’s last victory at Dover 88 races ago—the team has posted just six top fives and 27 top 10s.

Following Chad Knaus’s departure, after Johnson’s first winless season in 16 years, Kevin Meandering took the reins for 2019. After finishing ninth in the Daytona 500, the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team never sniffed the top 10 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup point standings again with Meendering at the helm.

Hendrick Motorsports changed course once again by promoting Cliff Daniels from race engineer to crew chief in August at Watkins Glen. Johnson returned to the top 16 in the standings for one race but dropped back to 18th with a 34th-place at Michigan one race later. The deficit was just too much to overcome.

But the forever optimistic Johnson hasn’t dwelled on missing the Playoffs for the first time in his career. This was not a championship-caliber team. Still, in the first round, Johnson averaged a 10th-place finish in the first three races. That’s the most consistent the team has been since mid-season.

“We’re taking big steps forward as a company,” Johnson said. “I know inside the 48, we’re definitely taking big steps forward. Our chemistry (with Daniels) allows us to get more done in a shorter period of time and his chemistry within the team is the same with the other crew members.

“This sport is about moving quickly and trying to move at a quicker pace than your competitors do and I think that Cliff has that ability to make quick decisions. You’re not always going to get them right but the way his brain works, his thoroughness, his work ethic puts him in a position to make quick, concise and hopefully—more times than not—the right decision as we go along. That’s what I see right now.”

Johnson believes Daniels' preparation and the ability to assemble the cars at a faster rate has enabled the team to be better equipped when they arrive at the track. Last week at the Roval, all four Hendrick cars finished in the top 10.

“We’re just getting cars done weeks in advance and that allows us to delve into the fine, fine details such as body and weight—and Cliff is largely responsible for that,” Johnson said. “Plus, some of the efficiencies in the shop have turned the corner as well. The guys at the shop are getting cars out way earlier than normal.”

This weekend, the Hendrick drivers showed up with new cars for the Drydene 400 at Dover. Johnson was solid in both practices, where he was second-quick in best 10 consecutive lap averages. That bodes well for the driver who has 11 wins at the Monster Mile.

“With the position that the 48 is in, we have nothing to lose,” Johnson said. “We’re definitely swinging hard and trying to swing at the right things and hopefully not making mistakes along the way.”

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