Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team have had plenty of options at their disposal, but choosing the correct ones have been a tall task 12 races into the 2019 season.
While a sixth-place finish at Kansas Speedway served as Johnson’s fifth top-10 finish of the year, Hendrick Motorsports teammates Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman have clicked off strong results as Johnson and William Byron have struggled a bit more than their counterparts.
“We have great flexibility at Hendrick to change cars and build cars in different ways,” Johnson told a group of reporters following his Coca-Cola 600 paint scheme unveil at the Hendrick Motorsports campus Tuesday afternoon. “At times we’ve found ourselves very close together. I think there are some areas where our cars are closer together than they’ve ever been, especially from a body standpoint.”
Johnson expressed that team owner Rick Hendrick goes out of his way to ensure all four teams follow an “open book” policy. But with so many different setup versions to work with under the Hendrick roof, more has actually been less for the 48 team.
“Everybody has access to all the sim components — everything,” Johnson said. “… We’re building our mouse trap and there are options along every part of building that mouse trap that you can take different options and different things. I believe some of those options, we just haven’t chosen the right ones that’s lead to where we are right now. Our teammates have hit their stride and are looking really good, so we need to head that way.”
Heading into Saturday night’s Monster Energy NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway (8 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), the non-points event gives the four-time All-Star Race winner and crew chief Kevin Meendering a chance to reset, with the hopes of finding a balance that will launch them into a positive direction as pivotal summer races approach.
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“Looking at the All-Star Race, we’ve made some changes to be a little bit wiser,” said Johnson.
But the winds of change have been more like gale-force gusts, blowing the 48 team in every direction. Known for his incredible forbearance in the heat of the moment, Johnson is running out of both time and patience for everything to smooth out.
“Over my career, I’ve been able to be patient and let things work themselves out,” Johnson said. “There are two factors that are leading to my impatience now. One is I haven’t won in a couple years. Two is I don’t know what I’m going to be doing in a couple years. My contract is up in 2020 and I’ll have to evaluate what I’ll want to do after that.”
If Johnson wants any kind of shot at breaking into Victory Lane and giving himself a fighting chance at a record eighth championship, he realizes crunch time is approaching as the season continues to fly by quickly.
“We haven’t been in contention to win a race yet this year,” said Johnson. “We’ve got to fix that. Then if I’m not in contention to win a race, there’s no chance of winning a championship. For me right now, this middle portion of the season is key for me to get things where they need to be so we can ultimately win races and win a championship.”
Bouncing back and forth between aggression and conservatism, Johnson has displayed glimmers of speed, but the total package is still to be determined. Johnson earned the pole and finished fifth at Texas, but it’s been a mixed bag since then.
“We keep changing and changing and changing, then we go to Texas and all four cars qualify one through four,” Johnson said. “So after that, it’s like let’s be aggressive, let’s continue to be aggressive. Then you get burned a couple weeks, then you’re like, OK, where is that fine line really at?
“I don’t have a clear answer, but ultimately in order for us to win and compete for another championship, that process has to clean up some.”
Through the ups and downs, the team might have hit on something at Kansas. The car unloaded off the hauler down on speed, but they were able to rally throughout the weekend for his second-highest finish of the year.
“I have to give Kevin a ton of credit, amongst my displeasure in the car, he made some killer decisions,” Johnson said. “We are awesome on pit road. Those guys rallied around, and we had a great second half of the race and finished sixth.
Starting with the Coca-Cola 600, a race Johnson has won on four occasions, and beyond, the time is now to make something happen.
“We know what’s making speed within our company, but we just need to figure out how to put those pieces into our car with our philosophies.”