Jimmie Johnson is one of the most recognizable faces in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series while competing for the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports team.
Johnson has won 83 races and seven series championships during his 19-year career, all with Hendrick.
But now Johnson is the graybeard of the series at age 43 and is struggling to get back up front, let alone win races.
Johnson and the rest of the series’ drivers will be running in the 100th NASCAR race at Michigan International Speedway Sunday in the FireKeepers Casino 400. Johnson has just one win in 34 races on NASCAR’s fastest track, the MIS two-mile superspeedway, the June race five years ago.
It’s not been that long since Johnson won his seventh title in 2016, but he is in the midst of his longest winless streak of his career – 73 races – and he has just three top-five finishes in his last 50 races.
Johnson is frustrated, but not about to give up on what he hopes with be an impressive comeback that gets him back to Victory Lane, a place he has been long accustomed to since he had a run of 16 straight seasons (2002-17) with multiples wins, including three in 2017 with his last victory coming at Dover.
Hendrick had one of the most veteran teams just a few years ago, but then Jeff Gordon retired following the 2015 season at age 44 with 93 wins and four series championships, followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2017 at age 43 after 26 wins.
“It’s definitely changed over the years,” said Johnson, who is now teammates with 23-year-old Chase Elliott, 21-year-old William Byron and 26-year-old Alex Bowman. “I had a friendship with Chase’s father (Bill Elliott) when Chase was just a toddler running around. William Byron, his parents live in the same neighborhood, so I’ve known him for years now, and I’ve known Alex for a long time since he drove for Dale (Earnhardt Jr.’s Xfinity series team).
“All three do an amazing job and have a very good sense of what’s going on underneath them in a race car. Sure, I wish I had a Jeff Gordon around or a Dale Jr., Mark Martin, just what they brought from an experience level and a leadership level within the team. But these guys are young and doing a great job.”
Johnson has struggled with the Camaro ZL1, which Chevrolet brought out for the 2018 season.
“We certainly expected to be better with the Camaro, but I think we’ve made up a lot of ground and we’re in a much more competitive space,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to ultimately know where we fit, but we have some changes coming on the car next year and we’re optimistic about the changes.
“We always want the aerodynamics over the body to improve and we’ll take anything we can get there, but I still think we need to do a better job as a team, especially the 48 car. There are other Chevys out there that are way more competitive than us. Our first goal is to be best in class and then from there we can pick up on other areas.”
Chase Elliott won three races last year and finished sixth in points. He won at Talladega this season, but that is Chevy’s lone win as the Toyota camp at Joe Gibbs Racing has won nine of the 14 races. Team Penske drivers in Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski (three) and defending series champion Joey Logano (one) have won four in the new Ford Mustang.
Johnson also parted ways with longtime crew chief Chad Knaus, who had been alongside Johnson during the entire seven-title run. Knaus was the lone NASCAR crew chief to win five straight championships (2006-10).
“It’s without a doubt different,” said Johnson of no longer running with Knaus calling the shots. “Chad and I, the last couple of years were pretty tension-filled and tough. Where it fits now, we’re back to the friendship that we’ve had from Day 1.
“I’m really happy for him. He still wants more competitively and wants to grow that 24 team (with Byron) and I’m in a similar path on my side, trying to grow the 48 team. We had something really special, there’s no way around that. It’s ran its course and now it’s time for the next chapter for both of us.”
NASCAR rolled out a new rules package for 2019 that has created more drag and downforce; corner speeds are way up and straightaway speeds are down.
“I think this package is really going to shine at that track (MIS); it should be a very entertaining race,” said Johnson. “It’s a different challenge for the drivers, a different way of racing, a different challenge for the teams. We’re trying to get on top of things.”
Johnson has definitely experienced his share of different during the past couple of years and he’d like to change that with a top-five finish Sunday at MIS, where he has suffered a lot of heartache.
“Fuel mileage seemed to bite me three or four times there,” said Johnson of MIS.
Johnson said his will to win is even stronger now than in the early 2000s when he was trying to make a name for himself in the sport.
“I think it’s greater,” said Johnson. “I’m closer to the end of my career and there’s no way around that, but I haven’t picked the date (to retire) or thought of the year or come to that conclusion. I’m very much in the present, just want to get back to winning.
“Right now we’re rebuilding our team and Kevin (crew chief Meendering) and I are finding our stride and we’re really excited about the second half of the year. I think Hendrick is in a growing phase, as well, developing a new vehicle. I think there are some really good times ahead for myself and the company.”
Most NASCAR wins
Richard Petty – 200
David Pearson – 105
Jeff Gordon – 93
Bobby Allison – 84
Darrell Waltrip – 84
Jimmie Johnson – 83
Cale Yarborough – 83
Dale Earnhardt – 76
Kyle Busch – 55
Rusty Wallace – 55
Most NASCAR championships
Jimmie Johnson – 7
Dale Earnhardt – 7
Richard Petty – 7
Jeff Gordon – 4
Tony Stewart – 3
Lee Petty – 3
Darrell Waltrip – 3
David Pearson – 3
Cale Yarborough – 3
FireKeepers Casino 400
When: 2 p.m., Sunday, June 9
Support races: ARCA Menards Series 200, Friday, June 7, 6:30 p.m.; NASCAR Xfinity Series LTi Printing 250, Saturday, June 8, 1:30 p.m.