Jimmie Johnson’s bearded face features a few more gray hairs than during his last visit to Daytona International Speedway.
Going winless for the first time in 17 seasons racing in the Cup series will do that a driver who has become NASCAR’s gold standard.
Now hungrier than ever, the 43-year-old is not taking his foot off the gas for a second despite 83 victories, seven season championships and more than $150 million in career earnings.
“It’s just one of those character-building years,” Johnson said. “It hasn’t changed my desire to compete. My desire to win and compete is stronger than it’s ever been.
“Hopefully we get some results this year.”
Johnson has been making trips to Victory Lane and chasing records pretty much from the time he climbed into his now-familiar No. 48 car. He enters 2019 in an unfamiliar position but with a different look as he takes another crack at a record eighth title.
Johnson has a new crew chief and sponsor after breaking up with Chad Knaus and losing Lowe’s amid NASCAR’s popularity decline. Both Knaus and Lowe’s were synonymous with the driver’s historic run of success.
The impact of those moves will unfold during the coming months, but Johnson is off to a promising start to the season.
On Sunday, Johnson’s car finished third among 42 during qualifying rounds — missing out by a spot on the front row for Sunday’s Daytona 500. Later, Johnson captured a rain-shortened Clash that was shrouded in controversy when his attempted pass of Paul Menard resulted in an epic crash, taking out most of the 20-car field.
Johnson offered no apologies for his aggressive driving despite finger-pointing from runner-up Kurt Busch.
“So he wants the trophy,” Johnson quipped. “I’d politic if I was him, too. Why not?”
Instead, Johnson focused on the positives from a day that ended with his car intact and showing plenty of speed.
“Just a great day,” he said. “Builds confidence for myself and the team, and hopefully we can get it done again next weekend. Great way to start.”
Sunday certainly was a change from a year ago.
Johnson returned for Daytona 500 preparations 12 months after a crash-filled Speedweeks that saw him total three cars.
“I went back and watched all the videos,” he said. “I didn’t realize how many cars I tore up out here.”
Things on the track rarely would improve as Johnson cracked the top five just twice. This from a driver who had posted more than 10 top-five finishes ever year from 2003-16.
“At the time you just chalk it up to restrictor-plate racing — bummer way to start the year,” he said. “But then there’s Atlanta, there’s Phoenix, right? Little did I know it was some foreshadowing a very challenging 2018.”
These days, Johnson feels reinvigorated.
After so much success teaming with Knaus, he has enjoyed working with new crew chief Kevin Meendering, though Johnson wants makes it clear he and Knaus remain close.
The bond between Johnson and Lowe’s was just as fruitful. But Ally’s hands-on, old-school approach reminds Johnson of sponsors during the sport’s heyday.
“Their commitment to our sport and this team is so 2000, late ’90s, which is amazing,” he said. “Their excitement, their participation in marketing, activation — they’re not just putting a paint job on a car and letting it roll around the track. That’s what took place back in the ’90s and early 2000s.
NASCAR all in on gaming
Count NASCAR as the latest sport racing toward the gambling industry.
NASCAR is on board — and on the betting boards of sportsbooks from Nevada and beyond — with legalized betting in 2019.
“I wanted to go all in on gambling last year,” NASCAR executive Steve O’Donnell said.
But NASCAR took a step back and scanned the gambling landscape before implementing gambling guidelines in the rulebook for this season. Among the new restrictions: drivers and team members are banned from betting on races or disclosing confidential information.
They are allowed to participate in fantasy sports relating to the three national touring series, Cup, Xfinity and Truck, but may not accept prizes with a value of more than $250 in any games. The bans are in line with other major sports.
NASCAR partnered with Sportradar Integrity Services to develop a gambling policy intended to protect the sport from cheating scandals.
Associated Press contributed.
When: 2:30 Sunday
Where: Daytona International Speedway
2018 winner: Austin Dillon