AVONDALE, Arizona — Jimmie Johnson says that even with the struggles this season he wants to finish his career with Chad Knaus as his crew chief.
The duo has worked together since Johnson’s rookie season in 2002 and won seven Cup titles together, including last year’s crown.
To have a chance at a record eighth title next week in Miami, Johnson needs to wins Sunday’s race at Phoenix Raceway. He enters last among the eight title contenders, 51 points out of the final transfer spot.
Johnson said Friday that this season has been as challenging to him as 2015, a year he won five races but finished 10th in the points. Johnson was eliminated from title contention in the opening round of the playoffs that season.
“That was a tough one on us as well with that rules package and trying to get speed out of our cars,’’ Johnson said of the 2015 season. “So, I’d say between ’15 and ’17, those have probably been the two most challenging years in my career at the Cup level.”
Johnson has three victories this season but all came in the first 13 races. Since his win at Dover in June, Johnson has one top-five finish and six top-10 results in 21 races.
“At the end of the day chasing speed is really the culprit,’’ said Johnson, who ranks 12th in laps led this year and has led in only two of the last 17 races. “And I feel that next year we’ll be in a much better position with the Camaro body on the race car. So, you start making decisions late spring and early summer, trying to extract speed out of the cars. And that doesn’t always make them comfortable to drive. So, it’s hard to say it’s just one thing, but the start of the process is just trying to make our cars faster. And, at times we’ve not made the best decisions and have made them very hard to drive. I think Texas was an example of that and also Kansas. We spun twice there. So, it’s just trying to make the cars faster.”
Friday, Johnson reaffirmed his support of Knaus.
“I started this with Chad and I want to finish it with him,” Johnson said. “Outside of something crazy happening. Crew chiefs live in dog years versus drivers. I think he’s made that known that his time might expire before mine does, just because of the wear and tear of being a crew chief.’’
Johnson signed a three-year contract extension in June that will take him through 2020. Knaus’ contract goes through the 2018 season.
Although Johnson is in a must-win situation, it’s how he has felt this entire round, which included races at Martinsville and Texas.
“Unfortunately we haven’t been able to step-up and win at Martinsville or at Texas, so now it continues,’’ he said. “We’re here and we must win.”