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Jimmie Johnson comfortable with ‘old man’ status at Hendrick

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DETROIT — The team dynamic at Hendrick Motorsports continued to skew younger this week with the addition of 19-year-old William Byron as driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet for 2018. The organization’s new-look lineup provides a striking age contrast for seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who turns 42 next month and will have three teammates under age 25 starting next season.

If the age difference ever slips Johnson’s mind, he may not have to go far outside the organization for reminders. Current teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will cease full-time competition after the 2017 campaign, already has a head start on some punchlines.

“We never really thought about that until you see it on paper,” Earnhardt said Thursday at Chevrolet’s unveiling of the 2018 Camaro ZL1 for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, “and I know that (Johnson’s) even a bit taken aback by it when you really think about it. So he’s going to have his hands full with all the ribbing and jokes and memes and GIFs and all kinds of stuff that he’s going to be seeing throughout the year. We’re already kind of picking on it.

“We used to, we went to Fort Lauderdale as a team bonding experience and sat in a few bars, had a few beers about a year or two ago, just to sort of bridge the gaps between any of the crew chiefs and drivers. We all went together. They’re going to have to go to Carowinds (amusement park) or somewhere this year if they want to do that. And eat snow cones. I mean, the jokes are just going to keep coming. They write themselves.”

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Johnson hasn’t chaperoned his teammates to any theme parks, but he already has shown an eagerness to help with their development. Chase Elliott, 21, will return for his third full year in the No. 24 Chevy next year, and 24-year-old Alex Bowman will take the seat of the No. 88 ride that Earnhardt will vacate at season’s end.

Byron, a three-time winner in the XFINITY Series this year, became the newest and youngest addition to the mix with this week’s news that he’ll replace Kasey Kahne for 2018, the latest jump in his stratospheric rise up the NASCAR ladder. It’s the same William Byron who still holds a fond childhood memory of a Halloween stop by Johnson’s house nearly a decade ago for trick-or-treating, getting an autograph on his makeshift pillowcase candy-holder from his idol and future teammate.

Johnson acknowledged that the team’s new composition firmly establishes him as the graybeard of the group, but that the Hendrick operation is now better positioned for long-term success.

“I’ve known that’s been the scenario brewing,” Johnson said of the new HMS age gap. “… I feel like with William, you certainly do recognize his age, but with Alex and Chase, they’ve both been in NASCAR vehicles for so long, yes they’re rookies but the age doesn’t stand out to me. William’s young, but he continues to impress me. I’ve seen him race in heated battles with Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, and come out on top and really handle things so well. I’m excited for him.

“I really think Hendrick has a very, very bright future and I’m also excited about my role to help mentor these guys and show them the ropes.”

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Johnson will be present for much of his teammates’ early growth. The 83-time winner signed a three-year contract extension June 16, keeping him in the Hendrick Motorsports fold through the 2020 season.

Johnson’s advisory role will likely extend beyond the nuances of actually driving the car. His determination is firmly linked to his robust fitness regimen, another place where Johnson has led by example.

“Everybody looks up to him,” said team owner Rick Hendrick. “If you just think about it, he’s got all the guys working out. He’s got Dale Earnhardt Jr. riding a bicycle. He’s got him eating like he should, and Dale will tell you, it’s changed his life. So if these young guys will follow his work ethic, they’ll have a real shot at being champions because he is all about being a student of the sport.

“Whatever he does, he wants to be the best — riding bikes, running triathlons or driving a race car. That work ethic is what’s made Jimmie Johnson so great.”

It’s also what may make Johnson untouchable when it comes to making humorous jabs at either his advanced age or his teammates’ whippersnapper status. Johnson has shown little sign of losing a step in his vigorous running and cycling routine, an intense athleticism which has provided him with uncommon health and vitality for a 40-something.

Nor has Johnson slowed down on the race track. He has three victories already this year, continuing a 16-year string of multiple-win seasons that spans all the way back to the start of his premier series career in 2002.

“Really, you can’t make fun of Jimmie because he kicks our tails so much every week typically that we can’t … really, what do you say?” Elliott said. “At the end of the day, yes he does have 20 years on me, but that experience shows up on the race track for a guy like him. He’s second to none, really, in a lot of ways. It’s hard to make fun of a guy like him.”

Either way, Johnson is bracing for it.

“It’s a bit new, so I know in the coming weeks, it’ll ramp up and certainly it’ll start next year,” Johnson said. “When you finally do get to work with these guys — and I’ve known them, William and Alex, for a long time — but once you get into the flow of a season and really form that relationship and the bond, then that ribbing will really start up. Maybe the first quarter of next year, I’ll have some good ones for you.”