Cliff Daniels

Jimmie Johnson announces that 2020 will be his final full-time Cup season

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Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, considered one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers, announced Wednesday that the 2020 season will be his final full-time Cup season.

“I know what this team is capable of, and I hope that 2020 is the best yet,” the future NASCAR Hall of Famer said in a video on Twitter.

Johnson’s contract expires after the 2020 season. Sponsor Ally extended its sponsorship of the No. 48 car in October through 2023. That led to questions of if Johnson would continue beyond next season. Johnson’s announcement comes three days after the Cup season ended. 

Johnson is tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most series titles. Some would argue that Johnson is NASCAR’s greatest driver, noting his record five consecutive championships (2006-10) and success in what is viewed as the sport’s most competitive era. Johnson’s titles also came with different types of cars and with various playoff systems.

NASCAR Chairman and CEO Jim France issued a statement praising Johnson’s career:

“NASCAR history will always hold Jimmie Johnson in the highest regard, for his hard-charging success on the racetrack and the way he conducted himself as a champion off the track,” France stated. “This remarkable seven-time champion – through his competitive spirit, immense talent and sportsmanship – has made NASCAR a better sport. On behalf of my family and the entire NASCAR community, I thank Jimmie for his dedication to NASCAR and, along with his legions of fans, wish him all the best in his final season. I look forward to watching him race for wins and an eighth NASCAR Cup Championship in 2020.”

Johnson has 83 career Cup wins, which is tied with Cale Yarborough for sixth on the all-time victory list, but has not won since Dover in June 2017. Johnson will enter the 2020 season with a 95-race winless streak. The 2020 season will be his 19th full-time campaign in Cup.

The 2019 season marked Johnson’s first without crew chief Chad Knaus. Kevin Meendering started the year as Johnson’s crew chief but was replaced by engineer Cliff Daniels in July before the race at Watkins Glen as the team struggled to make the playoffs.

Even with the move, Johnson failed to make the playoffs. It marked the first time since NASCAR’s postseason format debuted in 2004 that he was not a part of it. In his 15 races with Daniels this season, Johnson had four top-10 finishes with a best of eighth in the Dover playoff race.

Johnson has two Daytona 500 wins, four Brickyard 400 victories, four Coca-Cola 600 triumphs and two Southern 500 wins.

Career timeline: Jimmie Johnson through the years

Johnson will meet with the media Thursday afternoon to explain his decision.

While Johnson will not race a full schedule after 2020, he has said repeatedly that he plans to continue to race. He has expressed an interest in road racing and competing in an IndyCar race on a road course.

The timing of the announcement allows Johnson to celebrate one final season in Cup and gives Hendrick Motorsports time to find his successor with a move that could lead to significant changes in driver lineups for multiple teams for the 2021 season.

Johnson’s announcement sent shock waves through the sport.

Cliff Daniels bringing a familiar competitive fire to Jimmie Johnson

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — It’s well documented that Chad Knaus was a direct offshoot of NASCAR Hall of Fame crew chief Ray Evernham.

Before winning seven championships with Jimmie Johnson, Knaus spent his formative years being mentored by Evernham as a title-winning crew member and tire changer on the No. 24 of Jeff Gordon.

With the addition of crew chief Cliff Daniels two months ago on Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet, that Hendrick Motorsports chain has been re-established.

“Cliff and Chad are a lot alike personality-wise,” Johnson told NASCAR on NBC’s Jeff Burton in a recent interview. “There’s a natural fit for what the 48’s DNA is. Cliff is just an extension of that. Chad was an extension of Ray. Cliff is that of Chad. Now the 48 is back on familiar ground from a leadership standpoint. He has great energy, great communication skills, high expectations and proceeds in a way that builds energy in everyone.”

MORE: Johnson says Hendrick will know his future within four to six months

Daniels, a 31-year-old from Smithfield, Virginia, who recently became a first-time father (and had left the road to start the 2019 season because of family), doesn’t immediately remind someone of Knaus, the 48-year-old from Rockford, Illinois, whose maniacal drive and insatiable ambition helped make him the greatest crew chief in NASCAR history.

But the results-driven fire and zeal become more obvious when digging deeper into the history of Daniels, who has worked on cars and raced since he was 8 (while also pursuing a promising baseball career) and also worked under Knaus for four seasons.

“I’ve always been really competitive in anything I’ve wanted to do or done, so with competitive nature, you can get reckless at times and get hot-headed.,” Daniels told NBC Sports in an interview last Saturday before qualifying at Kansas Speedway. “We’ve always been a competitive family, but I was taught at a young age to be disciplined in your mental approach for any level of competition: Baseball, racing, you name it.

“We all know Chad is a very fierce competitor. He can be a hothead at times. He knows that and admits that, and he demanded a high level of performance. He had high expectations. He always wanted the team to meet that.

“That was not unfamiliar territory for me. I knew even times he’d get frustrated or push us really hard, I knew where that was coming from, and plus, you don’t have the record that Chad and Jimmie have together unless there’s a high level of intellect, a great approach and just process to put a great product on the racetrack.”

(Credit: Hendrick Motorsports)

Born into a racing family, Daniels’ introduction to stock cars started early (there is a picture of his father holding a 6-month-old Daniels in victory lane at Langley Speedway in Hampton, Virginia). He began racing go karts and Legends while simultaneously pursuing a promising baseball career (playing as a pitcher and catcher on a traveling team). He chose racing in his early teens and progressed to Late Models until the money ran out.

Adhering to his parents’ rule that he could race only if he earned As and Bs, Daniels also went to college during this time and graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from UNC Charlotte.

“I remember when light bulbs started going off for me sitting in some of those engineering classes in college and how well I could connect my racing experience to the math and the science and the physics and everything about making my car go faster or understand it better,” Daniels said. “I saw a new opportunity to take advantage of that time in college and push it forward.”

It led to work as a race engineer at Robby Benton’s Xfinity team, working with Kenny Wallace and crew chief Scott Zipadelli. Daniels moved from there to Stewart-Haas Racing as Tony Stewart’s race engineer in 2013-14.

He joined Hendrick Motorsports in December 2014 and spent the 2015-18 seasons under Knaus’ tutelage as race engineer.

“Working under Chad for so many years, I got to see both the good and bad, but I’m very biased to the good,” Daniels said. “There was so much to be learned from those experiences. The way he approached things. With my competitive nature, and again, just my awareness of knowing how to be disciplined about that, that has brought me here in a good spot to know how to push the team and Jimmie but to be smart about it and have a methodical approach.

“So I can totally see how somebody would say I’m like Chad in ways and have learned a lot from Chad. Because I have, and I’d be a fool not to because look at the guy’s record. There’s a lot to be said for that.”

Daniels enjoyed some of that No. 48 success, taking part in 10 victories and a seventh championship his first two years with the team. But he also was part of the first winless season in Johnson’s career last year (which led to the split of Johnson and Knaus after 17 seasons).

“We definitely have gotten kicked in the teeth, but I could see this hunger in Jimmie to keep going and keep fighting, and a lot of the communication we had just over the years, we knew at some point the 48 had to get back on the upswing,” Daniels said. “You don’t fall out of being a dominant team overnight. You don’t get back to being a dominant team overnight. There’s a process on both sides.

“We’d seen a point we’d reached bottom, and the only way to go from here is up. It starts with confidence, attitudes and resetting our mindset. We’re still building on that. I can tell we’re improving every week. I can see his confidence improving every week. The team’s confidence is improving every week.”

Johnson has four top 10s in the past five races with Daniels, who took over in the Aug. 4 race at Watkins Glen International. Johnson, who missed the playoffs for the first time this season, had eight top 10s in the first 21 races this season with Kevin Meendering,

Though Johnson admitted the decision to switch crew chiefs for the second time in less than a year was awkward (Daniels said he is a longtime friend of Meendering, who remained at Hendrick to help the team), the seven-time series champion has spoken incessantly since about a chemistry with Daniels that is reminiscent of how he once talked about his working relationship with Knaus.

“The connection I have with Cliff and the way we talk about the car and the confidence he can build and instill in me has taken me on this emotional roller coaster,” Johnson told NBC Sports. “I wasn’t really sure how deep I was in the valley dealing with changing from Chad and getting involved with Kevin. Cliff has really brought me back up and has me so excited and so ready for each and every week, that I’m in the best place I’ve been mentally for years. So absolutely I am ready for this fight.”

So is Daniels, who had to make some major life changes after coming off the road to work in Hendrick’s engineering department and reconnect with his short-track roots (he attended races around Virginia and North Carolina for six months before rejoining the No. 48 road crew at Sonoma Raceway). His wife, Shannon, fully endorsed the move (and gave birth to their daughter Aug. 15)

“I was incredibly surprised at how supportive she was, and I think it’s because her heart was in my job as much as my heart was in my job for the 48 and helping the team over the last five to six years,” he said. “Once we had the conversations about how tough it would be and managing our home life and with the baby coming, her attitude really didn’t change.

“I’m so grateful that she’s had a great attitude this whole time. She believes in what the 48 is all about and what we’re doing. She believes in Jimmie and what I’m doing. So I hardly have words to thank her for that because without her support, this would be so tough. To do it right, you spend a lot of hours at the shop. I work every day. It’s really trying to get our car, our product, our team, our performance back where it needs to be. So without her support and commitment, it would be pretty tough.”

(Credit: Hendrick Motorsports)

Friday 5: Friction grows between non-playoff drivers, playoff drivers

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It’s easy to miss one of the key themes to the Cup playoffs with so much talk about Martin Truex Jr.’s dominance, Kyle Busch’s inconsistency and Hendrick Motorsports advancing three cars to the second round.

What has been overlooked is the friction between playoff drivers and non-playoff drivers. 

NASCAR’s postseason is littered with cases where non-playoff drivers had an impact on playoff drivers, whether it was Scott Riggs’ crash on Lap 3 of the opening Chase race at New Hampshire in 2005 that collected title contender Kurt Busch or David Reutimann paying back title contender Kyle Busch at Kansas in 2010, among others.

But this year’s playoff races have seen the divide between the haves and have-nots reach a breaking point.

It was something Jimmie Johnson experienced at Las Vegas in his first postseason race as a non-playoff driver.

“I saw quite a few situations where drivers in the playoffs made desperate moves out there,” Johnson said a few days after the Vegas race. “Saw it happen to other drivers. I had a few make that move on me as well. It’s a tricky situation to be in, and I know they’re going after every point they need to, but so am I. We certainly plan to not allow myself to be used up as I was in Vegas a couple of times.”

Austin Dillon has been on both sides. He made the playoffs the previous three years but failed to do so this year.

“It happens a lot,” Dillon said of playoff drivers taking advantage of non-playoff drivers. “There’s a line between taking that, as a guy that’s out of the playoffs, and there’s a line that you cross.”

Dillon admits “my button ended up pushed” at Richmond by Alex Bowman after Bowman dived underneath Dillon on a restart and came up the track, hitting Dillon’s car, sending it up the track into William Byron’s car. After being told by car owner Richard Childress and crew chief Danny Stockman to pay Bowman back, Dillon retaliated and spun Bowman.

“Yes, I’ve taken advantage of guys because I was in the playoffs,” Dillon said. “I know that feeling. I feel like at some point if you take too much, it will come back on you.”

Bowman didn’t have problems just with Dillon at Richmond. Bowman said he and Bubba Wallace had an issue in that race that led to Wallace flipping him the bird. Then on the first lap of last weekend’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, Bowman lost control of his car entering the backstretch chicane and hit Wallace’s car, forcing Wallace to miss the chicane. Wallace later responded with a series of one finger salutes as they raced together. Tiring the signal, Bowman dumped Wallace.

It’s not just Bowman who has had problems. Kyle Busch was running in the top five, rallying from two laps down, when he ran into the back of Garrett Smithley’s car. Combined with an incident with Joey Gase, a frustrated Busch told NBCSN after the race: “We’re at the top echelon of motorsports, and we’ve got guys who have never won Late Model races running on the racetrack. It’s pathetic. They don’t know where to go. What else do you do?”

Smithley later responded on social media and Gase followed a day later.

To say that playoff drivers should have the right of the way on the track is shortsighted. The other drivers have something at stake. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., whose contact spun Martin Truex Jr. while Truex led at Richmond, is racing for a job. So is Daniel Hemric. No announcement has been made on Daniel Suarez’s status for next year at Stewart-Haas Racing, so he also could be racing for a job.

Those eliminated in the first round — Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Aric Almirola and Erik Jones — are racing to finish as high as fifth in the points.

And others are going after more modest goals. Chris Buescher, 20th in points, seeks to give JTG Daugherty Racing its best finish since 2015 (AJ Allmendinger placed 19th in points in 2016). Johnson seeks to refine the No. 48 team in these final weeks with new crew chief Cliff Daniels to become more of a factor and end his 88-race winless streak.

To have a playoff driver think they own the road is misguided. There’s much taking place on the track.

Whether playoff drivers want to play nice with non-playoff drivers is up to them and how they’ve been raced in the past. Of course, a playoff driver has more to lose than a non-playoff driver. So drivers will need to pick their battles wisely.

2. Hendrick’s round?

It’s easy to note Alex Bowman’s runner-up finishes earlier this year at Dover, Talladega and Kansas — all tracks in the second round of the playoffs — and forecast him advancing to the next round.

It’s just as easy to think Chase Elliott will have a smooth ride into the next round since he won at Talladega this year and scored wins at Dover and Kansas last year (with a different race package).

And if things go well, William Byron could find his way into next round.

Hendrick is building momentum. But what happened in the spring or last year doesn’t guarantee what will happen in the coming weeks, beginning with Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

It would be something if all three of Hendrick’s cars moved into the third round after the team’s slow start to the season: Bowman did not have a top 10 in the first nine races of the season, Byron had one top 10 in the first nine races and Elliott had two top 10s in the same period. And Jimmie Johnson, who is not in the playoffs? He had four top 10s in the first nine races.

Bowman and Byron enter the round outside a cutoff spot. Bowman trails Kyle Larson by one point for the final transfer spot. Byron is five points behind Larson.

3. Under the radar?

It’s hard to imagine someone scoring three consecutive top-five finishes — and five top fives in the last six races — being overshadowed but that seems to be the case with Brad Keselowski.

He has quietly collected consistent finishes at the front. The key will be to continue with mistake-free races or at least races with minimal mistakes. His 29 stage points scored in the opening round trailed only Martin Truex Jr., and Kevin Harvick, who each scored 36 stage points.

For what it’s worth, Keselowski won at Kansas earlier this season. That’s the cutoff race in this round.

4. Drivers to watch at Dover

Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott have led the most laps in nine of the last 10 Dover races. Harvick has led the most laps five times. Truex and Elliott have each done so twice. Kyle Larson led the most laps the other time.

Domination doesn’t necessarily equal wins. Only three of those times has the driver leading the most laps won the race. Harvick has done it twice. Truex the other time.

5. Milestone starts 

Sunday’s race marks the 500th career Cup start for Denny Hamlin.

Only two drivers have won in their 500th career Cup start. Richard Petty won at Trenton in July 1970 and Matt Kenseth won at New Hampshire in September 2013.

Kevin Harvick is making his 676th career Cup start. That equals Dale Earnhardt’s career total. Harvick made his Cup debut with Earnhardt’s team the week after Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.

Rick Hendrick: ‘Jimmie Johnson has something to prove’

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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.”

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Best of the rest: How non-playoff drivers did in Las Vegas

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The Cup playoffs began Sunday night in Las Vegas, and the playoff drivers made their presence known by occupying every spot in the top 10.

But what about the rest?

The first 16 spots were not filled by the 16 playoff drivers. In fact, playoff drivers only made up 13 positions in the top 20.

Here’s a look at the top-finishing drivers who are not contending for the championship:

Jimmie Johnson – finished 11th

With him not participating in the playoffs for the first time in his career, the spotlight wasn’t focused on Johnson very often Sunday.

But the Hendrick Motorsports driver finally put together his first complete run six races into Cliff Daniels’ tenure as his crew chief.

It was their first race together to not be involved in some sort of incident and it saw Johnson earn his first top-15 finish with Daniels. It’s only his second top 15 in the last nine races.

Austin Dillon – Finished 12th

The Richard Childress Racing driver earned his second straight 12th-place finish and his third consecutive finish of 12th or better.

He’s earned a top-15 finish in four of the last five races. That’s after only having one in a 12-race stretch.

Dillon also finished sixth in Stage 1.

“When the caution came out on Lap 180, we pitted to take another swing at loosening up this Chevy,” Dillon said. “Unfortunately, we had an uncontrolled tire penalty but it did allow us to come back down pit road to top off with fuel and adjust on the car more. We got the car better and made a good strategy to stay out for track position during a late caution to pick up additional spots.”

Paul Menard – Finished 14th

Menard took part in his first race since announcing last week that he would retire from full-time competition after this season.

The Wood Brothers Racing driver kicked-off his final 10 races for the team with his sixth top-15 finish in the last nine races. He finished outside the top 15 just once in his last 11 starts at Las Vegas.

Ty Dillon – finished 16th

The Germain Racing driver earned his best finish at Las Vegas in five starts (previous was 24th).

Dillon has finished 20th or better in six of the last nine races.

Daniel Hemric – finished 17th

The rookie driver earned a top-20 finish after two straight DNFs for wrecks. He has only three top 20s in the last nine races.

“Our handling balance would swing a lot from being really tight and then halfway through the run it was like a light switch and I would get super, super loose,” Hemric said. “We got that better throughout the race and back to where I could run more throttle, which allowed us to move forward into the top 10 and be more aggressive on restarts and make some hay during those time. On that last green flag stop we just got a little too free to where I couldn’t make the most time coming off pit road and just struggled a bit on that last run.”

Chris Buescher – finished 18th

The JTG Daugherty Racing driver extended his streak of finishes inside the top 18 to 16 races. The streak began at Kansas Speedway on May 11.

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