In a span of a week, Jimmie Johnson spearheaded a midseason crew-chief change and then confronted a driver who later indicated that if Johnson wanted to fight, they could fight.
What in the name of Jimmie Johnson is going on?
The seven-time Cup champion very well could miss the playoffs for the first time since NASCAR initiated a postseason format in 2004 â thatâs whatâs going on.
Even last year, his final year with longtime crew chief Chad Knaus, where Johnson made the playoffs despite going winless, it didnât seem as much of a three-alarm fire (Johnsonâs words) as the 2019 season. Crew chief Kevin Meendering was replaced last week by Cliff Daniels, Johnsonâs main engineer from 2015-18.
Daniels, who decided at the end of 2018 to come off the road, rejoined the team in June at Sonoma Raceway and provided pace, structure and feedback that Johnson desperately needed.
âThe communication, knowing what Jimmie likes â he was Jimmie’s lead engineer â so I think it gave Jimmie some comfort,â Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick said. âKevin is one of the smartest guys in the garage, but you can’t replace time and years together, and I think that’s all Jimmie wanted.â
Johnson has spent much of the summer in Colorado, but he went to the Hendrick shop in North Carolina last week to talk to Meendering, Daniels, the team and media about the change.
âEmotionally, itâs tough,â Johnson said. âThereâs no way around it. If you look at my personal life and dating and just everything, Iâve had long-term relationships. This isnât something Iâm comfortable with.
âBut, in my heart I just felt like we will get back to our competitive ways faster and sooner with Cliff in that position.â
Johnson, who won five consecutive championships from 2006-10 then added two more in 2013 and 2016 â all with Knaus on the pit box â didnât shy away from his role in the decision to change crew chiefs.
âIt certainly starts with upper-management and discussions there,â Johnson said. âThis one was a little different, where we could sense and tell from some of the crew guys that it was something on their minds, too. So, honestly, it was more of a group decision than an individual decision.
âI certainly had to approve and had a big role in it. But Iâm also scared to make big decisions like that on my own.â
Johnson owns 83 career Cup wins but is currently ridingÂ an 81-race winless streak that ranks more than three times as long as his previous winless streak of 26. And since thatÂ last victory on June 4, 2017 at Dover International Speedway, the 43-year-old whose contract with Hendrick runs through 2020 has only recorded six top-five finishes in the equivalent of two seasons of racing.
He will own he is a part of the problem, but Johnson also believes he is part of the solution.
âI still feel like Iâve got it,â he said. âI still feel like Iâm doing my job in the car. âŚ A year from now, I might have a different opinion of myself and might say, âHey, I donât have it, so Iâm handing the wheel over to a young guy and then let someone else have a shot at this thing.â
âBut the amount of time and work and effort Iâve put into this, my heart and soul [are] in it, Iâve never worked so hard in the last five years to try to stay on top of my game.â
Some might say heâs grasping for magic that has disappeared forever. He got into a heated discussion with Ryan Blaney after Blaney turned him Sunday at Watkins Glen. Johnson admitted that his perilousÂ points position added to the frustration.
âHe is stupid, he just drove through me,â he said about Blaneyâs actions and their discussion. âI donât know what he was trying to say [to me]. His lips were quivering. He was scared [expletive] over there.â
Blaneyâs response: âHe said I was scared? Yeah, OK. He can think that. Did I turn away? No, I didnât turn away. If he wanted to go, we could go.â
Johnson needs to put any feuds behind him as he competes Sunday for his second career win at Michigan (3 p.m. ET). He will rely on the youngest crew chief in the Cup garage to get him back to form.
And what if he misses the playoffs?
âEmotionally, if it happens, it happens,â Johnson said. âI know that I have given it my all. It wonât bother me as much as some of these other streaks have bothered me.
âYou live and learn. I had a hell of a run for a long time. Weâre trying to rebuild and get back and I do feel like we can get back on top of the sport again. Itâs just going to take a little time.â