LAS VEGAS, Nev. – Last year, over dinner in Las Vegas, Jeff Gordon handed the mantle of leadership at Hendrick Motorsports to Jimmie Johnson.
“Jeff took me to dinner this weekend last year,” Johnson related on Wednesday during an appearance at the Sports Business Journal/Sports Business Daily Motorsports Marketing Forum at the Mandalay Bay. “It was like, ‘Look, there’s really not an official role or a title or a capacity that the veteran at Hendrick driver has, but it can be anything you want it to be.’
“Jeff didn’t really seek out that role, but there were responsibilities that came with it. When we had that dinner and chatted about it, I definitely took his advice.”
The 2016 season was one of dramatic change for HMS. Team owner Rick Hendrick had to deal with the needs of a 20-year-old rookie driver, with Chase Elliott taking over the No. 24 Chevrolet from Gordon; a veteran No. 5 team in the doldrums, with driver Kasey Kahne; and Dale Earnhardt Jr. missing half the season because of a concussion.
From the standpoint of the drivers, Johnson assertively took the reins of leadership within the group.
“Knowing that Chase was coming in, and then trying to help the 5 car get back going, I really felt the need to try to bring our group together,” said Johnson, who will celebrate his record-tying seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship at the Friday night banquet that caps Champion’s Week (9 p.m. ET on NBCSN). “And I actually talked to Mr. Hendrick and put together a retreat for the four drivers and crew chiefs and went down to Ft. Lauderdale.
“We spent a couple of days hanging out together and drinking far more than we should have—except for Chase, of course—and really had a chance to bond. And that moment in time, honestly, I think changed the way the four teams work together.”
The way Johnson sees it, the retreat brought the drivers together, even though the desire to beat each other on the race track remained.
“There’s competition everywhere, even inside of our walls,” Johnson said. “We have four crew chiefs that all feel like they’re tougher, four drivers who all think they’re the guy. But to honestly sit there and relax and connect on a different level really served us throughout this year.
“I think, from the outside, people could see the difference, and we certainly saw it inside. There’s no way I would have taken that initiative when Jeff was the head guy. Number one, it was Jeff’s place to do that. Two, my mind wasn’t there.
“I’m so thankful Jeff sat me down this time last year for that dinner and passed the full baton over.”
The result for Johnson couldn’t have been better. With his 80th career victory on Nov. 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, his quest for a seventh championship became a reality.