It’s not very often that we see Jimmie Johnson fighting mad but that’s exactly how he was on Sunday afternoon at the Watkins Glen road course. Johnson, normally a cool, calm and collective guy had finally had enough. When he was spun in the inner loop by Ryan Blaney with 29 laps-to-go in last Sunday’s Go Bowling at the Glen, it was the likely final straw to where Johnson just lost all control.
While he was mad at Blaney and even Blaney later admitted that he would be too if he was in Johnson’s shoes, Johnson wasn’t having any of it. Even while Blaney was trying to apologize and take full responsibility for the incident, Johnson was still confrontational.
Jimmie Johnson during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway on February 10, 2019 in Daytona Beach, Florida.
That’s not who Johnson normally is. But, maybe that’s because all of the struggles of the last three seasons now aren’t normally who he is either. You combine all of that, the Blaney incident was just the fire on top of the gasoline moment. Johnson, had finally had enough. Blaney, was just the tip of the iceberg – but boy are his frustrations deeper than that.
Johnson, has never missed the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs before. Since the postseason format began in 2004, he’s the only driver to be a part of them each and every year. Right now, there are only four races remaining in the regular season and Johnson is tied with Ryan Newman for the final spot in.
This is uncharted territory for the seven-time series champion. His seven titles rank him tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most ever. His 83 trips to victory lane are one shy of tying Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for fourth most all-time. He’s 10 wins shy of tying Jeff Gordon for third most in fact.
A few years ago, it was a question of when, not if, Johnson moved his way past Petty and Earnhardt for most championship in the history of NASCAR as well as pass Gordon for third on the all-time wins list. After all, he only needed one championship to do so and he had already won three just since 2010. Plus, he only needed 10 wins to tie Gordon and 11 to pass him. He had won 14 times between 2014 and 2016 alone. He had at least four victories in any given single season in 12 of his last 13 seasons. Furthermore, Johnson had at least three wins in all but one of his years in NASCAR’s premiere series.
No one was better than Johnson was in the 2000’s. He was untouchable. Then, 2017 happened. That was the start of his decline.
Johnson, did win three times that year, but all were kind of fluky. He led just 217 laps for the entire season, worst ever for him. His four top five finishes and 11 top 10’s? Worst ever. His 16.8 average finish? You guessed it, worst ever.
How would he rebound for 2018?
It went further south.
Johnson, failed to win in a season for the first time of his career. His top five finishes went from four to two. His top 10’s remained level at 11. His laps led went from 217 to just 40. His average finish went from 16.8 to 16.7. While he made the playoffs, he was bounced early.
Two straight abysmal years led to a change up top. Gone was Chad Knaus for 2019, the only crew chief that Johnson had ever known in his full time Cup career. In, was Kevin Meendering. Gone also was his long time sponsor in Lowe’s. In came Ally. Gone was the past racing package, in was a new “drafting package” instead.
2019 was supposed to be a year of change. After all, Hendrick Motorsports looked to be turning the corner again.
Unfortunately, 2019 looks a lot like 2018 and 2018 looked a lot like 2017. After 21 races, HMS made another crew chief swap with Johnson. Out was Meendering, in was Cliff Daniels, a 31 year old with no past crew chief experience.
Through 21 races, Johnson had no wins, three top five finishes and eight top 10’s. He’s led just 81 laps. His average finishing spot is 15.3. His last three finishes were 30th, 30th and 15th place respectively.
Watkins Glen was another reset button. Unfortunately, two bad pit calls and another bad finish after what looked like it could have been a solid day put Johnson over the top. Watkins Glen was supposed to be different. It looked different. He had a fast No. 48 Chevrolet. His teammate was untouchable up front. Johnson, was in position to get a top 10 and move further ahead above the cutoff line in the points standings and he left with a similar result for what he’s seen all year – 19th.
His winless streak is now 81. The bad pit calls and end of race crashes caught up to him and he uncharacteristically acted out.
I think a part of his actions on Sunday was that he really was mad at Blaney, but the bulk of it stemmed from past frustrations and it boiled over to pit road.