Last year as a newly crowned seven-time champion, Jimmie Johnson spent much of the offseason at his new home in Colorado – skiing, getting his young daughters up on snowboards and generally enjoying the good times and just rewards of having cemented his legendary status in the sport.
This offseason, following a 10th-place finish in the points standings, will feel and look much different Johnson said last week during NASCAR’s Champion’s Week in Las Vegas.
“Last year we knew was pretty unique in being able to spend five full months out there [in Colorado] in a row,’’ Johnson said. “This year we won’t do that, we’ll just go out for holiday seasons and maybe West Coast swings, things like that.
“I’m sad I won’t be there as much but it was a lot easier last year after a championship. With the poor finish we just had, we need to buckle down and get to work.’’
A tough second half of the season relegated the 2016 champion to an early exit from the ’17 playoffs. His last top-10 finish of the year came at Charlotte (seventh) with six races remaining in the schedule and he closed out the season with a highly uncharacteristic stretch of 27th, 39th and 27th–place finishes – ultimately placing the No. 48 team at the bottom of the top 10 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings.
Although he started the season strong, leading the series with three wins by spring, 2017 marked the first time in Johnson’s 16-year full-time career he did not win a race after the start of summer. His 217 laps led marked a career low.
“I feel like the way the last quarter of the season went for us was below our expectations and certainly our fans and probably even the people reporting on the sport,’’ Johnson reflected. “It is unfair to always expect us to win a championship but I think being competitive and leading laps and challenging for wins … that’s a fair expectation and we just didn’t do that at the end of the year.
“That wasn’t easy to deal with. I had a good couple weeks, kinda relaxing after Homestead but then next week will be a work week, time to get back in the shop. I’m ready to get back to work.”
As Johnson spoke with reporters, the disappointment was palpable, but so was the passion to return to the winning ways modern NASCAR has become accustomed to seeing out of this No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet team. It’s hard to consider it an “off year” with three wins in that column, but the expectations here are different. So re-grouping, re-energizing and re-evaluating it is.
“Every offseason has different effects,’’ Johnson said. “This one is much more about letting go of stress and tension and relaxing. Last year after winning the championship it was being on top of the world and celebrating and trying to get to Colorado as fast as I could to ski as often as I could. This year is a lot different
“This year I’m kind of licking my wounds in a sense. Trying to think through what we could have done better in ’17. As the month moves on start thinking of ways we could communicate better, put a better product on the track.”
Johnson is convinced that his Hendrick Motorsports team will be putting a better product on track next year.
“I’m optimistic about 2018 and the new Camaro,’’ Johnson said, his face lighting up in enthusiasm. “From an aerodynamic standpoint the Chevrolets have not had an update since we went to this generation of car. For us to finally have an update the car will produce more downforce, be more efficient, definitely more competitive on the downforce tracks.”
When you have won 83 races and seven Cup championships, it’s easy to feel optimistic and confident. Johnson has not only won a race in all 16 full Cup seasons, he has won multiple races every year and has top-five finishes (222) in an amazing 38 percent of all Cup races (579) he’s competed in.
It’s safe to say Johnson knows how to maintain both good perspective and high motivation.
“Change is good,’’ Johnson said smiling. “No one is ever really in the same place individually, collectively or as a group. You’re either growing together or growing a part. Some change is always happening, so I think the change taking place for us is change in the right direction, will bring the company closer together and produce a better product, more competitive cars.”
“Our goal is to be in that (Championship 4) and compete for a championship.”