Has the win­dow closed on JJ’s chance for 8th Cup ti­tle?

The Herald Sun - - Sports - BY BREN­DAN MARKS [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com Bren­dan Marks: 704-358-5889; @bren­dan­r­marks

It’s a ques­tion no NASCAR fan truly wants the an­swer to, and yet it still bears ask­ing: Are we wit­ness­ing the be­gin­ning of the end of Jim­mie John­son?

As NASCAR’s off­sea­son trudges on, and fi­nal spon­sor­ships or driver deals are an­nounced, John­son finds him­self in­volved in the shakeup for seem­ingly the first time ever. Next sea­son, his 19th at the Cup Se­ries level, will be his first with­out long­time spon­sor Lowe’s and crew chief Chad Knaus. To­gether, that trio was re­spon­si­ble for a record-ty­ing seven Cup cham­pi­ons, 83 wins, and one of the most sto­ried rac­ing ca­reers in the mod­ern era.

Was, be­ing the key word there. As in, past tense.

But the rea­son it doesn’t feel blas­phe­mous to ques­tion John­son’s fu­ture, more than chang­ing spon­sors or crew chiefs, is his most re­cent sea­son. Which, as John­son would surely tell you, was the big­gest dis­ap­point­ment of his pro­fes­sional ca­reer.

For the first time since he be­came a full-time Cup driver, John­son did not win a race. None. Zip. Thirty-six tries, zero vic­to­ries to show for it. Yikes.

Even in 2017, which John­son pre­vi­ously called the most chal­leng­ing sea­son of his ca­reer, there were three wins to (sort of) buoy his dis­ap­point­ment.

Not this time around. Lis­ten: John­son’s 43, turn­ing 44 be­fore the end of the 2019 sea­son. He’ll be work­ing with a new crew chief and new spon­sor for the first time. And again, com­ing off a big ol’ goose egg.

Re­ally, maybe the bet­ter ques­tion to be ask­ing here is:

Is John­son’s NASCAR cham­pi­onship win­dow closed?

The an­swer de­pends on if you lis­ten to your heart, or to the his­tory books.

As men­tioned be­fore, John­son turns 44 in Septem­ber. If he were to win his record eighth Cup ti­tle in 2019, he’d be the thir­dold­est cham­pion in the his­tory of stock car rac­ing’s high­est divi­sion. Bobby Al­li­son was the old­est, win­ning his only Cup ti­tle at the age of 45 in 1983, and Lee Petty also won his fi­nal cham­pi­onship when he was 45 in 1959. But in the mod­ern era, John­son would ab­so­lutely be set­ting a prece­dent by win­ning into his 40s.

The only two close com­par­isons in mod­ern his­tory be­long to Tony Ste­wart, whose third ti­tle came at age 40 in 2011, and... well, John­son him­self, back in 2016.

And that was be­fore John­son’s whole world turned up­side down.

Now, John­son eas­ily could right the ship in 2019, fol­low­ing on Chase El­liott’s promis­ing end-ofyear run for Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports. While John­son, rookie Wil­liam By­ron and Alex Bow­man all strug­gled for the ma­jor­ity of 2018, El­liott had his break­through sea­son of sorts, win­ning three races and al­most ad­vanc­ing to the cham­pi­onship race at Homestead. Hen­drick and the new Chevy Ca­maro they raced in 2018 clearly weren’t as suc­cess­ful as they had been in years past, but the team still found suc­cess in cer­tain set­tings.

If any­one were to fig­ure out how to repli­cate that, wouldn’t it be John­son?

In all like­li­hood, John­son’s best days are be­hind him. If Dale Earn­hardt and Richard Petty never won an eighth ti­tle, it prob­a­bly stands to reckon how daunt­ing and im­prob­a­ble it is. Es­pe­cially in the mod­ern age of NASCAR we live in to­day, where par­ity and year-in changes reign, count­ing on any one driver — even one as good as John­son — to en­dure at the high­est level for 20 years is an un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tion.

We saw in flashes this year, prob­a­bly no more clearly than when he wrecked him­self and Mar­tin Truex Jr. at Char­lotte’s Ro­val in Septem­ber, how badly John­son wants to get back to win­ning. His com­pet­i­tive fire shouldn’t be un­der­es­ti­mated, ever.

Be­cause of that drive, his in­tel­li­gence, and Hen­drick’s end-of-year im­prove­ments with El­liott this year, ex­pect­ing John­son to get back to his win­ning ways in 2019 is cer­tainly a rea­son­able ex­pec­ta­tion. But whether he’s ever able to win an­other ti­tle... well, the stats don’t back it up and nei­ther does John­son’s most re­cent two sea­sons.

Again, it’s whether you trust his­tory, or your heart.


Next sea­son, Jim­mie John­son’s 19th at the Cup Se­ries level, will be his first with­out long­time spon­sor Lowe’s and crew chief Chad Knaus.

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