It will take more than milk and cookies to put the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team back together again.
Driver Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus haven't been able to conjure up the magic in 2017 that propelled them to seven titles.
Sure, Johnson made it through the Round of 12 In the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff after a lackluster performance at Kansas Speedway--with a little help from a blown Hendrick engine in Kyle Larson's No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.
But this isn’t the same team that could flip a switch during last year’s Chase and win at Charlotte to advance—and then win at Martinsville to transfer to the Championship Round.
On Sunday, when Danica Patrick was nipping at the heels of the No. 48 Chevrolet before Johnson was lapped by teammate Chase Elliott, it didn’t seem possible. After Johnson’s talent and the team’s pit strategy helped advanced the car from the rear of the field to the lead in the first 90 laps, he appeared ready to defend his win.
Alas, the car wasn't up to the task.
Johnson finished fourth in the first stage, 10th in the second stage, and as the sun began to set, the No. 48 Chevy fell backwards. The crew freed up the car when Johnson pitted during the eighth caution on Lap 362. He restarted 13th and dropped to 18th with 100 laps to go. As Elliott and Brad Keselowski battled at the front of the pack, Johnson was fending off Patrick, Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray. Elliott lapped Kahne on Lap 450 and then passed Johnson. Yes, the junior Hendrick driver lapped his nine-time-Martinsville-winning teammate.
Johnson’s greatest contribution in the closing laps was serving as a pick between Elliott and Keselowski, which enabled the No. 24 Chevy to extend its lead. Sure, Johnson was able to return to the lead lap by earning a "lucky dog" after Carl Long spun on Lap 458. He restarted 17th and fought his way to 12th over the final 41 laps. Knaus offered Johnson tepid support from the pit box, “Go as fast as you can, I guess.”
At the end of the First Data 500, Johnson was merely a footnote in Race 1 of the Round of 8.
“We were just terrible all day,” Johnson said. “Oh, what a bummer. We had high hopes for this weekend. Man, it just didn’t turn out so well. So, we scored some points here and there. We will go to the next one and try to get more.”
Not in title form
Knaus is back to his condescending self. Johnson appears to have checked out as well. The bickering over the radio the last two weeks sounded more like that of a couple in the throes of a divorce, not in the midst of a championship run.
Twelve years ago, when Knaus and Johnson were at each other’s throats, team owner Rick Hendrick sat the pair down and served them an ultimatum with milk and cookies: work it out or work apart. The following season the No. 48 team won its first of five-straight titles.
No, Hendrick Motorsports isn’t the king of the garage right now. Furniture Row Racing is wearing that crown. The No. 78 doesn’t have to do the heavy lifting that Hendrick does by building chassis, engines and cars from scratch. However, crew chief Cole Pearn is at the top of his game. And Martin Truex Jr., overcomes adversity with the same ease that the seven-time champion once did.
Admittedly, Johnson’s lucky horseshoe remains intact more times than not. He spun out three times in the last two races and didn’t end up on the back of a wrecker. At Kansas, Johnson and Knaus debated whether his car was viable after two spins and a trip through the infield grass. Johnson soldiered on to finish 11th. On Sunday, Johnson spun during qualifying, and after the team was forced to make unapproved adjustments, he started from the rear and finished 12th.
Until the No. 48 HMS team is mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, it would be foolish to count Johnson out. He holds the track record with seven Cup wins at Texas Motor Speedway. He has won four times at Phoenix Raceway. And last year, Johnson capitalized on Carl Edwards and Joey Logano’s misfortunes to win at Homestead-Miami Speedway and collect his seventh Cup title.
Is the magic gone?
Still, this team hasn't exhibited the flashes of brilliance that once distinguished it from other competitors in the garage. Johnson hasn’t won since the June Dover race. His 24 circuits at the point in Martinsville were his most laps led since Charlotte in May (35). Johnson’s 217 laps led this year is a career-low after 16 seasons with Hendrick—as are his four top fives, 11 top 10s, average qualifying effort (17.1) and average finish (15.5).
Johnson, 42, signed a three-year contract extension in June. He has always contended that he started his Cup career with Knaus and wants to finish it with the 46-year-old crew chief. Knaus currently has a year remaining on his contract.
As with couples who grow apart during a long marriage, perhaps the chemistry is truly gone from the Johnson-Knaus relationship. True, the sport is cyclical, and Hendrick can't always be the top team, but that doesn't explain why a driver with 83 career victories and seven titles is often running behind his teammates, who have the same equipment and access to the same information.
Team owner Rick Hendrick has been willing to shake up his lineups in the past. Perhaps now is the time for him to sign the Johnson-Knaus divorce papers and give his star driver and star crew chief fresh challenges.