Anyone who’s followed NASCAR in the last 17 years knows the name Jimmie Johnson, as well as his dominance in the sport. Since his Sophomore Season in the Cup Series, Johnson has won at least two races per season, totaling 83 in his career. He’s also won seven Cup Series Championships, which ties Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most ever.
But In 2017, Johnson showed signs that his success might be slowing down. He finished 20th or worse in 12 of the 36 races, including crashing out six times. He won three races, which is the lowest amount of wins in a season for him since he won two races in 2011. These results, plus adding in that Hendrick Motorsports as an organization has struggled to find speed since 2017 raises the question – Is 2018 Johnson’s last chance at a championship? If it is his last chance, it hasn’t got off to a good start.
Johnson’s bad start to the season began during Speedweeks at Daytona where Johnson crashed three cars in eight days. “I feel terrible for my race team for all their hard work.” Johnson stated in an interview on NASCAR.com before the start of the Daytona 500. This bad luck continued into the next week at Atlanta where Johnson spun out in the backstretch resulting in major right front damage. He was able to salvage a 27th place finish.
The seven-time champion went into Las Vegas 35th in the point standings. Johnson showed some speed in the practice sessions, including being third fastest in one session. He then qualified 14th for the race, but this wasn’t where Johnson would actually start. The No. 48 failed pre-race inspection three times, resulting in Car Chief Jesse Sauders being ejected from the track. Johnson had to start at the back of the field. He was quickly lapped by Kevin Harvick, who dominated the race. Johnson fought all day and was able to finish in 12th, one lap down. After the race, Johnson stated “I’ve been trying to carry it, and I’ve crashed more cars in the last six months than I have really in any six month stretch or whole year stretch. (I’m) just trying to drive it 100 percent and not step over that line.”.
With some momentum from Las Vegas, Johnson and the 48 team went to ISM Raceway with optimism, but the mistakes they made at Las Vegas resulted in another setback. Johnson was only able to practice for 20 minutes before qualifying. He had to serve a penalty due to failing tech at Las Vegas. This limited practice didn’t allow the team to be prepared for qualifying. “We only had 20 minutes practice because of the issues we had in Las Vegas, and I never had a chance to go out on scuffed tires to see what adjustments we had to make,” Johnson stated. During qualifying, Johnson didn’t make it past the 2nd round and started the race in 17th. Johnson and the team worked on the car throughout the final practice sessions and during the race, resulting in a 14th place finish.
The biggest news relating to Johnson this season came out earlier this week when Lowe’s announced that they were leaving the sport at the end of 2018. Lowe’s has been Johnson’s primary sponsor since his rookie season in Cup. This announcement brought a lot of discussion online about the health of the sport, as well as the possibility of Johnson retiring. The retirement discussion was quickly put to rest in a team release put out on Wednesday, where Johnson stated “I have more to accomplish in this sport. I feel the best I’ve ever felt physically. I’m motivated. I’m focused on winning races and chasing more championships. Someone (a new sponsor) will be a big part of writing that story with us. I’m not going anywhere.” He followed with “There’s still a lot left to do in 2018. Although Johnson and the 48 team are focus and motivated on the rest of the 2018 season and beyond, they are stuck with the reality that things haven’t been going great so far.
Johnson was once again 14th in the only practice session before qualifying Friday at Fontana. At the start of qualifying, there were 16 cars still in line for tech, the No. 48 car was one of them. Johnson was not able to put down a qualifying lap and due to his poor performance so far this season, Johnson will start Sunday’s race from 33rd.
If there is a track that can help Johnson get back on track towards a championship, Fontana is it. Johnson has won there six times, with 13 top 5’s and an average finish of seventh. He will have two practice sessions today to work on the car. The green flag for tomorrow’s race at Auto Club Speedway is at 2:46 pm/ET.