It was an agonizing season to forget for seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion Jimmie Johnson. The driver who has had one of the most illustrious careers in history put together the worst season of his career in 2018.
The year got off to an ominous start for Johnson. The driver of the No. 48 Camaro ZL1 was swept up in a chaotic nine-car crash on lap 60. Johnson’s day was done, and he was credited with a 38th-place finish. A week later, Johnson finished an unceremonious 27th at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
It took Johnson until Phoenix – the fourth race of the season — to finish a race on the lead lap. Johnson finished 14th that day.
The California native did finally get his first top-10 of the season with a ninth-place effort at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California in the next race.
Two races later, Johnson suffered his second DNF of the year with a crash at lap 176 in the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. After seven races, Johnson found himself mired 20th in the championship point standings.
Then, at Bristol Motor Speedway Johnson showed some life. After qualifying in 17th position, Johnson put together his best race of the season after heading to the back of the field for an unapproved tire change.
Johnson finished top-10 in the first two stages (8th in Stage 1 and third in Stage 2).
As the race came to a close, Johnson was in the thick of the battle for the win. He would ultimately claim the third finishing position. After climbing from his car, Johnson felt his team was improving.
“Yeah, it really is a great boost,” Johnson said. “I’ve said for weeks now that we’re getting better and it’s great to finally have a result to back that up. We’ve had decent Fridays and really good Saturdays and then some bad luck in the races. Although we had plenty of bad luck over the course of the four or five days that we’ve been here, we were able to pull through and get a great third place finish. So, I’m very proud of everybody at Hendrick Motorsports and thank everybody on this Lowe’s For Pros team and let’s get home and get out of here.”
Little did Johnson know that Bristol would prove to be snake oil.
Johnson, who has led nearly 19,000 laps in his career, didn’t even lead a lap in a race until Pocono in June.
Even with how bad the year was for Johnson and long-time crew chief Chad Knaus, the duo was able to skirt their way into the Playoffs.
In the third race of the Round of 16, it looked like Johnson was potentially heading to victory. In the closing laps, Johnson had closed in on Martin Truex Jr. for the lead. The No. 48 car stalked the No. 78 and as the two drivers reached the final chicane on the final lap Johnson’s car experienced wheel-hop.
This sent Johnson skidding out of control, and he collected Truex as he spun. Johnson would limp across the line to finish eighth. Not only did Johnson not win the race, but by sliding to eighth on the final lap he also did not have enough points to advance to the Round of 12.
His championships hopes were officially dashed.
Aside from a seventh-place finish at Talladega, Johnson finished 12th-or-worse in the remaining seven races of the season.
Johnson finished the year 14th in the championship standings (only the second time he has finished outside the top-10 in 17 seasons). Overall, Johnson accrued two top-five finishes and 11 top-10s in 36 starts.
At 43-years-old it would be easy to write Johnson off. But Johnson isn’t your typical 43-year-old. He is in prime physical condition and he appears to be focused at turning things around this upcoming season. So, to, does Hendrick Motorsports.
The team has opted to shake things up for the No. 48 team in 2019.
Out is Knaus and in steps Kevin Meendering as the new crew chief. Lowe’s, who have sponsored Johnson since his rookie season in 2002, are also out. Ally Financial steps in for primary sponsorship duties on the No. 48 car.
Johnson has struggled mightily over the last couple of seasons, and part of 2018’s struggle was the new Camaro ZL1 body that Chevrolet introduced. An extra offseason to continue improving the aerodynamics of the body will do Johnson and his team a world of good.
So, what can we expect from Johnson?
Johnson will win a race. Johnson will finish inside the top-10 in the championship standings. And he very well may be the most improved driver in 2019.
Will he win a record eighth championship? I’m not ready to make that bold claim, but the No. 48 will be much better than it was this past season.