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.
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 third-oldest 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-of-year 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.