DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Gone are Jimmie Johnson’s veteran teammates—Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the TV booth and Kasey Kahne to the next stage of Monster Energy Cup Series life in the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Chevrolet.
In their places at Hendrick Motorsports are 24-year-old Alex Bowman and 20-year-old Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender William Byron. Add to that mix 22-year-old Chase Elliott, who has two years at NASCAR’s highest level under his belt—and has yet to win a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.
Elliott and Byron combined have spent about as much time on Planet Earth as has Johnson, who turned 42 last September.
The infusion of new blood isn’t the only change at Hendrick. This year, the crew chiefs for all four teams will work out of the same building, with their offices side by side. That’s a paradigm shift from the previous model, which had the crew chiefs working together in pairs.
This year, too, the Chevrolet teams have a new car to race—the Camaro ZL1, which Johnson expects to be an aerodynamic improvement over last season’s Chevrolet SS.
“Obviously, a lot of change, from rules to the new Camaro, the internal restructuring that’s going on at Hendrick,” the seven-time champion said on Wednesday during Daytona 500 media day at Daytona International Speedway.
“You add that with the driver lineup, this is the most change I’ve ever seen at Hendrick Motorsports in my 16 seasons competing there. It’s a big year for the company.”
It’s also a big year for Johnson, who won his record-tying seventh title in 2016, but floundered last season after winning three of the first 13 races.
After the 2016 season, Johnson celebrated. After 2017, he went back to work.
“The ‘17 season was so hard on us the second half of the year, I literally came back from the banquet, and it was time to dig in, work on any and all areas. Much more work done this off-season due to the circumstances of where we finished (10th in the final standings).”
In fact, Johnson didn’t wait until he got home. He was on the phone to team owner Rick Hendrick the day after the NASCAR Awards in Las Vegas.
“Yeah, I left there pissed off,” Johnson acknowledged. “That sucked. I knew after we got eliminated from the Round of 8, I knew our championship hopes were closed. To relive the highlight reels, all of that, it’s like, ‘Damn, I want to be that guy. I want to get back and be that guy.’
“That was a huge shot in the arm of adrenaline to get to work. I literally started wearing Rick out on the phone: ‘What do we need to do? Where do we need to start?’”
Fortunately, there’s a new car and a new system to work with this year, because Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus never did figure out why the No. 48 car lacked speed in 2017.
“I don’t have an answer,” Johnson said. “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, a whole new set of rules to deal with.
“We’ll just forget about last year and move on.”
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