Turn 2 Blog: Jimmie Johnson’s Farewell & Evaluating Driver Moves

*Turn 2 Blog is a regular feature on InsideCircleTrack.com. Here, site operators Michael Moats and Richard Allen take turns offering their thoughts on the NASCAR and pavement short track racing topics of the day.

Richard: This off-season has gotten off to a fast start with some big news having already dropped and perhaps more still in the offing.

I think we have to start with the announcement that seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson plans to retire from full-time NASCAR competition at the end of the 2020 season. While this might not necessarily come as a shock to most, it is absolutely noteworthy considering all the 44-year-old superstar has accomplished.

Apart from the championships, the Hendrick Motorsports pilot has pulled his car into victory lane a total of 83 times over the course of his Cup Series career. Johnson has also come up big in the sport’s crown jewel events. He has captured the Daytona 500 twice, the Brickyard 400 four times, the Southern 500 twice, and the Coca-Cola 600 four times.

There is no doubt that the El Cajon, California native is one of NASCAR’s all-time greats and a first ballot Hall of Fame selection.

But for whatever reason, Johnson doesn’t seem to get the credit some other drivers who have achieved similar records do. Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, the sport’s only other seven-time champions, seem to always get mentioned ahead of Johnson when lists of great drivers are compiled. Perhaps it’s because of Johnson’s somewhat robotic personality, the fact that his championships all came during the Chase/Playoffs era, or maybe even because so many consider his success to be the result of driving for powerful Hendrick Motorsports and innovative crew chief Chad Knaus.

Do you share the sentiment that Johnson is somewhat underrated for someone who has accomplished as much as he has? If so, why do you think that is?

Jimmie Johnson has scored 83 wins in the No. 48

Michael: He is certainly underrated by many fans. I agree that some seem to hold his playoff performance against him. I also think his business-like appearance is held against him by the fans that like the more fiery competitors. But make no mistake, winning 83 races in this era is nothing to gloss over.

All one has to do is compare his numbers to others from his era or even the previous era. Tony Stewart is regarded as one of the best all-around drivers and he has 49 wins in his Cup career. Kevin Harvick also has 49 wins and counting. Kyle Busch has 56 Cup wins in 17 seasons. I certainly think he is one of the top 5 or 6 drivers in the history of the sport.

Richard: This is somewhat hard for a person named after Richard Petty and who grew up idolizing ‘The King’ but I believe the tandem of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus is the greatest driver-crew chief combination in the history of the sport. Petty and cousin Dale Inman scored more wins but that was in a different era when there was not nearly as much competition in the Cup Series as there was when Johnson and Knaus were achieving their success.

Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson are one of the most successful crew chief-driver combinations in NASCAR history

Certainly, the combination of Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham was a great one while Earnhardt had multiple team leaders including Kirk Shelmerdine and Andy Petree throughout his career so it would be difficult to label ‘The Intimadator’ and just one other person as the greatest.

Knaus has moved on as he now prepares cars for young William Byron but his days with Johnson will go down in history as one of the great pairings ever, right?

Michael: I believe so. Not only the numbers that you mentioned, there isn’t that much longevity between driver and crew chief these days. For them to have spent the amount of time together as they did says a lot. Aside from the Petty-Inman combo, there isn’t a successful pairing that spent that much time together.

Richard: There have been some intriguing driver moves announced going into the off-season this year. NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Tyler Reddick will leave the Richard Childress Racing Xfinity Series program to take over the No. 8 car for that same organization in the NASCAR Cup Series. Similarly, Christopher Bell will leave the highly successful Joe Gibbs Racing Xfinity Series operation to join forces with Leavine Family Racing with support for JGR on the NASCAR Cup Series.

There is no doubt that each of these drivers has loads of talent. But have they put themselves in the best situations going forward?

While the RCR Xfinity team has shown itself to be very good, their Cup cars have struggled. Reddick will join forces with Austin Dillon in the top series beginning with the 2020 Daytona 500, a race RCR did win with Dillon in 2018. But up to this point they have not been able to find the recipe that will help them run up front consistently.

Reddick is a very talented driver, but so was Daniel Hemric who Reddick is replacing in the No. 8 Chevrolet. I’m not sure that simply changing drivers is going to be enough to turn that program around. In today’s NASCAR, it’s engineering that determines who wins and who doesn’t. Drivers make a difference but without engineering that difference is between 14th and 15th, not 1st and 2nd. If we hear of RCR adding to its engineering staff, then this move will prove to be a good one for Reddick, but otherwise, I see him as having traded a top flight Xfinity car for a 15th place Cup ride.

Do you see it any other way?

Michael: No, not really. It used to be a really good driver could overcome average equipment. I don’t think that is the case today. There is so much engineering into the setups of the cars these days, success is mainly predicated on who has the best engineering group.

How much support LFR gets from Gibbs remains to be seen for Bell. If they can get some good technical support, I think Bell could really turn some heads. The guy is a great all-around driver. I think Bell and LFR can have a better immediate impact than Reddick and RCR. It’s nothing against Reddick, but more where RCR is as an organization.

Richard: Another move worthy of taking a look at also involves an Xfinity Series driver who will also be in the NASCAR Cup Series next season. Cole Custer has had a very good run for Stewart-Haas Racing in NASCAR’s ‘second series’ by taking nine checkered flags(seven in 2019) and consecutive second place finishes in the final series standings.

There’s no doubt that any of the three drivers we have mentioned deserved to move up, but unlike his counterparts, Custer is stepping into what appears to be a much more stable situation by taking over the SHR ride vacated when that organization did not retain Daniel Suarez. While only one SHR Ford won races this season(Kevin Harvick won four times), three of the four teammates made it into the NASCAR Playoffs as Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola joined Harvick in entering the final ten races with a shot at earning the title.

But along with the fact that he is stepping into what at least on the surface would seem to be a better ride than Reddick and Bell comes the pressure of everyone knowing he is in a better ride. Expectations will likely be greater for Custer than the other two.

How do you view the Custer move to the Cup Series?

Cole Custer will drive the No. 41 car for SHR alongside teammate Clint Bowyer(14)

Michael: I think this is the case of an extra season in Xfinity paying off in the long run. Many people thought Custer should have gotten the No. 41 car last year, but really, Custer didn’t seem to be ready for a Cup ride based off wins compared to Bell and some of the other Xfinity regulars. As you said, winning 7 races shows he’s ready for the move up now.

I think there will be a lot of expectations for Custer, but I don’t know if that will translate into pressure except for what he puts on himself right out of the box. I really think a lot more pressure will be on Bowyer at SHR rather than on Custer this upcoming season.

Richard: One thing is for sure, this is a very talented rookie class entering the NASCAR Cup Series in 2020.

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