DOVER, Del. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson has a winless streak that’s hit 88 races. He missed the playoffs for the first time in his career and lost any shot at winning a record eighth NASCAR championship.
The driver who once seemingly won at Dover International Speedway each time he grabbed the wheel is now a 30-1 longshot to do it again. Johnson is on his second crew chief of the season — and has faced hundreds of questions about his future.
How much longer will you drive, Jimmie?
Does the competitive fire still burn as the losses mount for a 44-year-old driver on the short list of NASCAR’s greatest of all time?
Johnson each week publicly states he’s no closer toward deciding his racing future than he was the week before.
Hendrick Motorsports announced Friday that Johnson’s primary sponsor — the company that infuses the team with needed cash — had signed an extension to stay on the No. 48 Chevrolet for three years through 2023.
Johnson is only signed with Hendrick through 2020. The deal with Ally Financial should take Johnson through the end of his career. But when the seven-time champion calls it quits, he’s not ready to say.
“I haven’t made any decisions at this point,” Johnson said. “I know everybody would like me to be in the car through 2023 and even past that, but I just haven’t made that decision yet. I certainly didn’t want to stand in the way of this great news, either.”
Johnson extended his own track record for victories when he won at Dover for the 11th time on June 4, 2017. He matched his idol Cale Yarborough for sixth on NASCAR’s career Cup victories list with 83. Johnson’s eighth championship seemed within reach. So did the 90-win mark.
He hasn’t won since — 88 races and counting headed into Dover’s 100th race on Sunday.
Johnson swept Dover in 2002 and 2009 and won races in 2005, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2017. He also joined NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty (Martinsville-15, North Wilkesboro-15, Richmond-13, Rockingham-11) and Darrell Waltrip (Bristol-12, Martinsville-11) as drivers to win 11 races at a single track.
“I think an opinion or past experience at a track or past history, really gets you through the week and up to it, but it doesn’t really change much once you get to the track and get to work,” Johnson said.
Johnson has only three top-fives (he’s twice had 20 in a season) and 10 top-10s (he’s scored 24 in four seasons) and Hendrick dumped crew chief Kevin Meendering in July for Cliff Daniels. Johnson had won all seven titles with crew chief Chad Knaus before they were split up for the 2019 season. Johnson has made all 227 career starts for Hendrick since his debut in 2001.
Hendrick has expressed confidence Johnson will win again and hasn’t pressured him for a decision. Hendrick also fields cars for William Byron, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman, and they all made the playoffs.
“I’m going to take every day that I can get from Mr. Hendrick before I have to make my decision,” Johnson said.
Lowe’s had been Johnson’s sponsor since his 2001 debut and was represented in some part on the No. 48 Chevrolet in all 83 of Johnson’s Cup Series victories. Ally took over this season on a two-year deal and decided to stick with Johnson even as he muddled through the worst season of his career. Ally was not a new sponsor to Hendrick. The financial institution was rebranded from GMAC to Ally after the 2008 economic downturn, and GMAC sponsored Hendrick cars at various stages.
Solving the sponsorship issue could actually factor into Johnson’s future. Had the company decided not to re-sign with Hendrick, how attractive would a 40-something athlete far removed from his prime be to a new sponsor?
Hendrick and Johnson don’t have to find out.
“If we didn’t have a sponsor, there could have been pressure from that side,” Johnson said. “But I never felt it and it certainly didn’t get to that spot.”
Johnson won five straight championships from 2006-10, and he became the first race car driver voted Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year in 2009.
Johnson remains tied with for the 11th time Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most Cup championships in NASCAR history. This season, he failed to make NASCAR’s playoffs for the first time since its 2004 inception. But he’s still comes up big off the track — the Jimmie Johnson Foundation Golf Tournament raised another $500,000 (pushing the career total past $8 million) to fund grants from K-12 public schools in California, Oklahoma and North Carolina.
He’s determined in 2020 to make a push for that eighth championship. Beyond that, who knows?
“I might want to go longer than 2023. I just don’t know,” Johnson said.
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