Jimmie Johnson experienced the toughest season in his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career in 2018 after going winless for the first time as a full-time driver that dates back to 2002.
In a year that saw his 17-year run with crew chief Chad Knaus and long-standing sponsor Lowe’s come to an end, Johnson posted career season low numbers in top fives (2), laps led (40) and final rank in the series standings (14th).
“In my Cup career that is probably the most difficult year that I have had,” Johnson said. “As far as having a fully funded high-qualify ride, ’18 was by far the toughest. Especially, to work through the decision to go separate ways with Chad (Knaus) that was probably…early in the year, kind of mid-season when we made that decision and working through that scenario wasn’t easy.”
The team announced in March that Lowe’s would not be returning as the primary sponsor of the No. 48, which dates back to a three-race run with Johnson in 2001. In the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Johnson drove his rookie Lowe’s paint scheme and brought to a close the Johnson-Knaus-Lowe’s era that saw seven championships and 83 wins (81 with Knaus on the pit box).
“When you think of the relationship with Lowe’s, I hate to see that come to an end,” Johnson said. “Everything we accomplished together, their belief in me and the company’s support of me and this team over the years. So that is one piece and then the other piece obviously with Chad, you know it’s time for us to move on and have a new project and have new people to work with. But he is my brother, there is just no way around it.”
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Johnson’s best finish of the season came at Bristol Motor Speedway in the spring. His other top five in 2018 came at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the Coca-Cola 600. In the series’ debut at the Charlotte Roval in the playoffs, Johnson was in contention for the win, but spun in Turn 17 and made contact Martin Truex Jr., who was the leader. Johnson fell back to eighth in the final rundown – one of 11 top 10s this season – while Truex was relegated to 14th.
“Looking back, I was a little lower than I typically was entering that braking zone and had a bit more steering wheel input in the car and that’s initially why the left front locked up,” Johnson said. “I would change a couple of things, but I don’t know how I don’t go for it.”
The spin turned out to be costly as Johnson was eliminated from championship contention after he lost a three-way tie in the standings with Kyle Larson and Aric Almirola following the final race in the Round of 16.
This season, Johnson also failed to record a stage win, but finished in the top 10 in 31 of the 73 stages for a total of 134 points, ranking 13th among all drivers.
As Johnson heads into the 2019 season he will have Ally Financial as a new primary sponsor and Kevin Meendering as his crew chief. Meendering comes to Hendrick Motorsports from JR Motorsports after spending the past three seasons as Elliott Sadler’s crew chief in the Xfinity Series.
“He’s the right fit for Jimmie at the right time,” said Rick Hendrick. “With an established No. 48 team behind them, I believe they will perform at a winning level next season and chase that eighth championship.”
Johnson’s real start to transitioning to prepare for 2019 began after the awards banquet in Las Vegas. Following the season finale Johnson spent a week out of the country with his opportunity to drive a Formula 1 car during a ride-swap with Fernando Alonso at the Bahrain International Circuit.
“I talked to Kevin Monday after Homestead and he was moving into his new office at HMS,” Johnson said at Myers Brothers Awards in Las Vegas. “I texted with him while I was away. I haven’t been in much contact with the Cup-side of life for the last seven days, but I’ll definitely be back into it when I get back to North Carolina. We had a lot going on leading into it and I think the team is in pretty solid order and ready to go. It’s just a matter of getting into the off-season and working on the 2019 rules package.
“I’ve got a lot of work to do with my new team, we’ve got a lot of work to do with this new package and we’ve got to come out stronger.”
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