Even though Jimmie Johnson is in the midst of the longest winless streak of his NASCAR career – 88 races – team owner Rick Hendrick is convinced the seven-time Cup champion will return to victory lane soon, potentially as early as this weekend’s race at Dover.
There’s reason for Hendrick’s optimism: Johnson’s 83rd and most recent Cup win came at Dover. He also owns the one-mile all-concrete banked track’s record with 11 career Cup wins there.
This is the first time Johnson has not been part of the Cup playoffs since he became a full-time Cup driver. Not only has it been difficult on Johnson, it also has been rough on Hendrick to watch his driver go through such a prolonged dry spell.
“It’s been really hard,” Hendrick said Wednesday morning on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “On Track” show with Danielle Trotta and Larry McReynolds. “Here’s a guy that’s won seven championships, won five in a row, is one of the best drivers ever in the sport and to see him struggle, it just kills you. You want to do everything you can to try and fix it. To miss the playoffs was a huge deal, you just hate to see it happen when you’ve got a streak like that going.
“But on the flip side, he is more hungry today and more committed and the team is really jelling quickly. Cliff ( Daniels) has just done a fantastic job. You can listen to the two of them, watch the spring in their step, and it looks like the early days of Chad (Johnson’s former crew chief, Chad Knaus) and Jimmie. So I’m really, really pumped up about that.”
How quickly could Johnson get back to victory lane?
“I see Jimmie Johnson winning a race here, maybe multiple races, and I think it could happen Sunday (at Dover, 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN),” Hendrick said. “So I’m going to be as excited to go to victory lane as much as I was when he won the championships. We’re just refusing to give up, he’s doing everything he can and I’m super impressed with Cliff. I’ve never seen a young guy mature as fast and be so quick to make decisions and just show skills that I’ve seen veterans go years without having.
“So, we’ll see. I think Jimmie has something to prove and it’ll be fun to watch in Dover.”
Hendrick understands the frustration Johnson has been going through, particularly this season, his first year of not making the playoffs and his first season without Knaus as his crew chief.
“You know that any athlete or anybody that’s had the success that he’s had, it weighs on you when you don’t perform,” Hendrick said. “But I think the pressure to make the playoffs was just a ton, almost as much as when you’re coming down to the end to win a championship. But once that was over and we moved on, he became more determined to tell me he couldn’t wait to get to the Roval (last weekend) and Dover, he just can’t wait.
“It just built more fire in him and again and they’re clicking. It’s a tough situation to watch someone that good, someone with that much talent, not to be able to hit the stride you know he can do. We just all never gave up. We know we can do this, we know how good he is. It’s just a real spark right now because I see him having fun and feeling comfortable and confident, and that’s what it takes.”
Hendrick also raved about Chase Elliott’s win Sunday at the Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval, rallying back from 37th place after wrecking while leading with 44 laps remaining.
“That was the most unbelievable comeback I think I’ve ever seen,” Hendrick told Trotta and McReynolds. “When he went off-course in Turn 1 and locked the brakes up, I thought ‘Well, that’s it, he may be able to get back to 10th, but that’ll be about it.’
“But when all the cautions fell and he was back on track, he was doing some amazing things with the car. It was one of the most exciting races that I can ever remember. … It was a spectacular performance and a lot of excitement for the fans.”
When asked if he thought Elliott would be able to rally to finish 1-2 with teammate Alex Bowman, Hendrick replied, “Never, never, not the way he started that race. I thought the car was damaged, but boy, the way he came on in the second half of that race, especially in the closing laps, he did an unbelievable job.
“If you had asked me to bet, I would have lost a lot of money that either of those guys would be in the top 10, let alone 1-2.”