At this point, if you’re Jimmie Johnson, you pull whatever tricks you’ve got up your firesuit sleeves.
As of this writing, Johnson is 17th in the NASCAR Cup Series points standings. Only the Top 16 drivers qualify for the postseason, something Johnson has done every year since the playoff system started in 2004.
Obviously, that streak is now in jeopardy.
On Monday, Hendrick Motorsports announced that Cliff Daniels would be taking over as crew chief for Johnson’s No. 48 team effective immediately. Johnson’s crew chief the first 21 races of this year, Kevin Meendering, now slides into a senior competition role with HMS.
So... what should we make of all that?
Really to answer that, you have to go back to the end of the 2018 season, when Johnson and longtime crew chief Chad Knaus split up. Knaus — who had won a record-tying seven Cup championships with Johnson —moved over to work with Hendrick youngster William Byron, who has grown tremendously throughout the course of the year.
Essentially, Knaus and Johnson’s explanation for disbanding after so long together was that things had gotten stale. Stagnant. And when you work with the same person for more than 15 years, it’s easy to understand how monotony might set in.
The issue is, even for someone as talented and intelligent as Johnson, there’s always going to be a transitional period after a big change like that. And as you’ve seen over the bulk of this NASCAR season, Johnson’s adjustment to a new crew chief hasn’t exactly gone smoothly. There have been flashes of the old Johnson — a third-place finish at Daytona and fourth at Chicago, as well as a stage win last week at Pocono — but you’ve also seem a bottoming out unfamiliar for the No. 48.
And meanwhile, Knaus has made much more progress with Byron, a Charlotte native who currently sits 12th in the standings with a 62-point edge over his elder counterpart. He too has been somewhat inconsistent, but since the Coca-Cola 600 in May, Byron hasn’t fallen outside the Top 20 in any race. Johnson can’t say the same.
But Byron isn’t the only one passing Johnson by at HMS. Both Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott have won races this season, automatically locking them into the playoffs. And so the unthinkable is now five races away from becoming reality:
Jimmie Johnson as the lone Hendrick driver not in the NASCAR playoffs.
Which is why this crew chief change to Daniels makes sense now. Clearly, Meendering and Johnson hadn’t been able to recapture the No. 48’s old championship magic, and they were running out of time to correct the issue. Daniels may only be 31, but he has experience, winning the 2016 championship with Johnson as his race engineer.
There’s no way to know if Daniels will be able to get Johnson above the cutoff line in five races, but it’s almost like he’s playing with house money: If Johnson gets in, Daniels is a success. If he doesn’t, it’s because he was already too far behind the curve.
“Cliff has really shined since he came back to the ‘48,’” Johnson said in a statement. “When he returned, there was an immediate change in the team dynamic that all of us felt. We’ve worked together for a long time, have a ton of mutual respect and a shared vision.
“I have no doubt the strong connection and working relationship is going to pay dividends right away.”
It better, for Johnson’s sake.
Or else, one of NASCAR’s all-time icons will officially be in freefall.
This week’s NASCAR race at Watkins Glen: What you need to know.
Race: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series GoBowling at The Glen.
Distance: 90 laps, or 220.86 miles.
Where: Watkins Glen International, a 2.45-mile asphalt road course in Watkins Glen, N.Y.
When: 3 p.m. Sunday.
Last year’s winner: Chase Elliott.
Also this week: Zippo 200 at The Glen, Xfinity Series, Watkins Glen International, 3 p.m., Saturday, NBC.
Worth mentioning: Elliott won his first career Cup Series event at this race last season.
Who’s Hot/Who’s Not
Denny Hamlin: After narrowly missing out on winning New Hampshire a week ago, Hamlin rights that wrong by getting to Victory Lane at Pocono.
Erik Jones: Jones had a shot to beat Hamlin, but instead had to “settle” for second, his third consecutive Top-3 finish.
Jimmie Johnson: Finishing in 15th place isn’t terrible, but that fellow fringe playoff contenders Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer again beat him is a bad sign.
Daniel Suarez: His playoff dreams aren’t quite dead yet, but he can’t afford to finish 24th again if he has any shot at sneaking in.