Seventeen years, 83 wins, seven championships and an eighth on his mind. Jimmie Johnson knows his way around NASCAR’s premier series.
Such experience will be helpful when Johnson, 42, is the leader of what will be one of NASCAR’s youngest teams at Hendrick Motorsports next season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is retiring and Kasey Kahne was not asked back for the final year of his contract. Kahne, 37, will drive for the single-car Leavine Family Racing organization next year.
William Byron and Alex Bowman are filling the vacant seats. Bowman is 24 and Byron will turn 20 before the Daytona 500 in February. They join Johnson and Chase Elliott, who will be 22 next year for his third season of full-time racing in the Cup series.
“William and Alex are eager to get going and I think both would love to run Cup races this year if we could find the right situation for them,” Johnson said Friday. “They’re going to be great assets to the team, we just need to get them laps, get them in the car, start understanding their vocabulary … build that foundation and get going.”
A younger team is hardly a bad thing, Elliott said.
“It’s opportunity. Nobody can drive forever, I’m not going to drive forever. At some point you’ve got to move on,” he said. “The way Alex ran last year when he was subbing for Dale, you don’t just come in and run like that and not get an opportunity to continue forward with it. … William, with the way he’s run this year in Xfinity, I think he’s proven to everybody that he knows what he’s doing. With all the dynamics that go on in a company like Hendrick Motorsports, I think they had to make decisions.”
Bowman filled in for Earnhardt in both races at Loudon last year while Earnhardt battled concussion symptoms. He competed in 10 races last year, earning one pole and three top-10 finishes.
Three Hendrick drivers made the playoffs between Johnson, Kahne and Elliott, but their run through the season lacked the dominant power Hendrick has typically put in the field in past years. Johnson has three wins this year, the only races where he finished inside the top-five. Kahne won the Brickyard 400 and has three top 10s.
“This year has been a tough year, I think, for our company,” Johnson said. “Last year was tough, but we still found a way to get to the championship. This year has been tough again but there is a lot of change going on internally, directionally we’re making some great changes and obviously the addition of the two new drivers will shuffle the deck a bit. We want to close out strong and get some good momentum heading into the offseason.”
Elliott, though still looking for his first win in the Cup series, has made good strides this year. He leads the team with seven top-five finishes and 15 top 10s.
Hendrick tossed the keys for the 24 to Elliott, a bright-eyed young driver from Georgia with deep roots in the sport, after Gordon retired following the 2015 season. Elliott’s father, Bill, is a NASCAR Hall of Famer and was voted 16 times as the sport’s most popular driver. It didn’t take long for NASCAR to embrace Elliott as the leader of its youth movement.
A championship in November would be a nice start to a new era for Hendrick, whether it be for Johnson or Elliott. Kahne needs a couple high finishes – or a win – in the next two races to keep his playoff hopes intact. He’s currently 15th in the standings, six points behind the cutoff for the next round when the field of drivers will be whittled down from 16 to 12. Kahne, who has a new crew chief for the final nine races, has one win at Loudon from 2012.
Johnson (three wins at NHMS) is seventh in the standings and 20 points above the 12th-place cutoff. Elliott is in eighth and with 18 points of clearance.
The weekend in Loudon got off to a bumpy start for Johnson and Elliott. Johnson wrecked during an early practice session Friday heading into Turn 3. Elliott followed the leader and wrecked his car in similar fashion. Both were dispatched to their backup rides.
Elliott was already in hot water after NASCAR levied his team with multiple penalties for illegally manipulating the car’s aerodynamics at Chicagoland last weekend. Elliott was docked 15 points, his playoff point for winning the second stage in Chicago was rescinded, and his car and crew chiefs were suspended for the New Hampshire race.
Elliott finished 11th at NHMS in July. He’ll start on the seventh row Sunday in the ISM Connect 300 surrounded by his Hendrick teammates. Jimmie Johnson will start one row in front of Elliott and Earnhardt will be one row behind. Kahne had the best qualifying session of them all and will start next to playoff driver Matt Kenseth on the fifth row.
Johnson finished 10th in Loudon’s July race. He has one top-five finish at NHMS in his last seven races. His last win on the Magic Mile came in 2010.
Johnson will need to pull a rabbit out of his helmet at some point in the playoffs if he’s going to nail down that eighth title this year. It would make him the greatest champion in NASCAR history, surpassing seven-time champions Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.
He found a way last year with playoff wins at Charlotte, Martinsville and Homestead.
Hendrick Motorsports is turning a corner, as all of NASCAR is, toward a new era.
“We’re heading in a good direction,” Johnson said. “I really feel that.”
(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3339, email@example.com or on Twitter @NickStoico.)