When the Cup Series playoffs begin Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN), Hendrick Motorsports will have three of its four drivers contending for the title.
But for the first time in NASCAR’s postseason, which debuted in 2004, those drivers will not include Jimmie Johnson. His 15-year streak of competing in the playoffs ended last weekend in the Brickyard 400 with a wreck that kept him from securing a playoff spot.
Tuesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive,” owner Rick Hendrick was adamant it shouldn’t have happened.
“For whatever reason, we shouldn’t have been in that situation,” Hendrick said. “I mean the way the car’s been running, we should not have been there. But I tell you what, it’s fired him up and the team up.”
Hendrick, who has been Johnson’s owner for his entire Cup career, described what he’s seen out of Johnson over the last few races as he and new crew chief Cliff Daniels tried to get Johnson into the 16-driver playoff field.
“There’s two ways you can accept that,” Hendrick said. “One: It’s unbelievable and now you just bump into neutral and run along. Or you’re kind of pissed off and mad at yourself, mad at the environment and you got something you want to prove and that’s the way Jimmie and Cliff are now. I see more fire in Jimmie Johnson here of late than I’ve seen in a long time. Not that he’s ever not been on fire, but the commitment, the energy, what he’s doing with the team … you can see it in his eyes, he does not want to be looked at as he can’t get it done anymore.”
From his perspective, Hendrick said making the playoffs wasn’t Johnson’s main goal. It was putting an end to the longest winless streak of his career, which stands at 85 races, two more than the number of wins he’s earned in his career.
“It’s hard to explain this,” Hendrick said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “He’s more interested in winning a race than he was in making the playoffs. Don’t get me wrong, he’ll probably listen to this and say ‘Where did he get that from?’
“Just knowing him for all these years and seeing what he does behind the wheel and his voice and the communication between he and his crew chief, I’ve seen it more in the last four or five races, three races anyway, that he is just super on fire.”
This was further exemplified Sunday after Johnson was eliminated from the race.
“He told me after Indy, ‘I wish we were going to Vegas tonight on the plane,'” Hendrick said. “That’s the burning desire that he has and the team has and the whole organization has. We’re not use to being in that position and we don’t accept that very well.”
While Johnson hasn’t been able to put together a completely clean race in the five races he’s been paired with Daniels, Hendrick has reason to feel good about their pairing moving forward.
“It’s only been five weeks I think, but boy they are clicking, they’re on the same page,” Hendrick said. “I listen to him on the radio and it sounds like the team back when they were winning championships.”