NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson still has no answers for his poor 2017 season


By virtually any metric, Hendrick Motorsports driver and seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson endured the worst of his 16 full NASCAR seasons in 2017.  The numbers are even worse than you might have imagined.  Consider:

•    No poles: only the second time that’s happened to him and crew chief Chad Knaus;

•    Three victories: tied for second-fewest of his career;

•    Four top-5 finishes: fewest of his career;

•    Eleven top-10 finishes: fewest of his career;

•    217 laps led: fewest of his career;

•    Tenth in points: second-lowest finish of his career;

•    11.6: worst average starting position of his career;

•    12.4: worst average finish position of his career;

•    25 lead-lap finishes: tied for fewest in his career.

Even the seven-time Cup Series champion knows his No. 48 team stunk it up last year.

“I don’t have an answer why,” he said Wednesday, speaking of the weeks following the season-finale in Homestead. “I still don’t have an answer. Luckily, there’s so much change going on this year. We feel we have a whole new mousetrap (the new Chevy Camaro) and a whole new set of rules to deal with. We’ll just forget about last year and move on.”

But it wasn’t easy to “forget last year and move on.

” By finishing an embarrassing 10th in points, Johnson had to attend the champions’ banquet at the Wynn Las Vegas Resort. Being in the audience as Martin Truex Jr. was honored as the 2017 champion was not fun. “Yeah, I left there (ticked) off,” Johnson said. “It sucked. I knew after we got eliminated (in the fall) that our championship hopes were closed.

“To relive the highlight reels (of Truex’s spectacular season) … it was like, ‘Damn, I want to be that guy. I want to get back (to the head table) and be that guy.’ I’ve been there (and) I can respect and appreciate the sweet spot those guys have been in. I started wearing out (team owner) Rick Hendrick on the phone. ‘What do we need to do? Where do we need to start?’ When you don’t win, you can’t wait to get back to work to improve and figure out what went wrong.”

Hendrick started figuring it out by tearing down walls, some figuratively and others literally. He brought his four crew chiefs and his battalion of engineers into closer proximity in the Hendrick Motorsports campus near Charlotte. “We want to live together,” Hendrick said of the restructuring of his organization.

“We want to be in one area with the best guys setting up the (surface) plate, building the cars, working in the wind tunnel together and sharing. We’re tearing down the walls of one team versus another team.”

Johnson seems convinced the “one-team” concept will work. (It should be noted that in the past, that “one-team togetherness” hasn’t always worked).

“Much more work has been done due to the circumstances of where we finished,” he said. “It’s different when two crew chiefs are in one building and two are in a different building. All four crew chiefs in the same building (now) is different than before. Rick has wanted everybody to work closer and closer together. But physically, now we’re taking it to a new level. Their (team) offices are literally going to be next to each other.

“Then, obviously, there has been a lot of change from rules to the new Camaro, the internal restructuring at Hendrick. You add that with the driver lineup (returnees Johnson and Chase Elliott, plus newbies Alex Bowman and William Byron) and this is the most change I’ve ever seen at Hendrick Motorsports in my 16 (full) seasons.  It’s a big year for the company. But I feel like we’ve always responded well to change, different generations of cars, tires that are introduced. I like changes. It’s fun to chase that rabbit.”

Johnson is one of only six former champions still racing: himself, Kyle and Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Truex. Without hesitation, Johnson picked Truex (no pressure, huh?) to repeat this year in his No. 78 Toyota.

“I’ve always said you can’t bet against a champ, especially a dominant year like 2017,” he said. “The last two years… (look) how strong that team has been. I’d put the favorite as the 78 and it’s our job to chase them down. I hate being beat by the same car all the time, but we’ve had our runs (five consecutive Cups) doing that to folks. I remind myself of that often (because) I know how hard it is to get there. When you’re there, things kind of flow in a way that’s comfortable and natural. You can control the animal, the beast that it is to win.”

Finally – and not surprisingly – Johnson’s uncharacteristic ’17 led some to question his commitment or his competitive fires. The looming specter of retirement hovers nearby, especially since at 42, he’s accomplished more than only a handful of racers in NASCAR’s seven decades. On Wednesday, near Victory Lane of Daytona International Speedway, he quickly shot down that suggestion.

“I feel like, sure, I could stop,” he said. “I’ve accomplished so much. But what else am I going to do? I’d have to find somewhere else to race (because) I’m a racer at heart. I want to compete. I feel like I can accomplish more in this sport and win more races and compete for more championships and win more championships. I don’t feel that it’s time yet. At some point that fire will go out (and) I need to be aware of that. Right now, (the fire) is as intense as ever.”

By Al Pearce

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