FORT WORTH, Texas – Jimmie Johnson isn’t waiting for 2019 to begin working with his new crew chief. The seven-time champion and winner of 83 races took part in a Goodyear tire test Tuesday at Atlanta Motor Speedway in part to begin building the driver/crew chief relationship with Kevin Meendering.
“That was the icebreaker part,” Johnson said Friday from Texas Motor Speedway, site of Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.
“Here’s a chance for us to go hang out for the day. Granted, we can’t work on the car, but we’ll be on the radio and we can talk and afterward we looked at the computers and discussed things and just tried to work on our dialog.”
Johnson said he even treated it as if changes could be made to the car, “talked about what I felt, where I thought it was coming from. Just to get that dialog started,” he said. “Because it’s honestly the most important part.”
Hendrick Motorsports officials announced Oct. 10 that the potent Johnson/Chad Knaus combination would be no more after the ’18 season. The driver and crew chief have been together since 2003, Johnson’s first full season in the series. The No. 48 team has set records, such as five consecutive championships from 2006-10, and set the standard by which all other teams have been measured.
But Johnson hasn’t won since June 4, 2017, a span of 56 races. His streak of winning seasons, currently at 16, is in jeopardy with three races remaining. He was a first-round casualty in this year’s Playoffs.
Knaus will replace Darian Grubb in ’19 as crew chief of the No. 24 entry with driver William Byron. Meendering is currently crew chief for Elliott Sadler in the Xfinity Series.
“I’ve been around Kevin a lot of years,” Johnson said. “Certainly (it was) odd having a different voice in my ears. Totally different. Of course, there’s a lot of excitement with something new and (a lot of) energy around that.
“We had a lot of fun with it and there wasn’t a lot of pressure – just kind of scratching the surface.”
Prior to joining JRM, Meendering spent 16 years at HMS. He served as assistant engineer for Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 team in 2011 before being named lead engineer for the No. 88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr. He’s in his third season at JRM.
Ross Chastain (Chip Ganassi Racing), Paul Menard (Wood Brothers Racing), Erik Jones (Joe Gibbs Racing) and Ryan Blaney (Team Penske) participated in the single-day confirmation test using the 2019 rules package.
Johnson, 43, took part in the Atlanta test to drive the wheel force car for Chevrolet. Not the move one might expect from a seven-time champion. Yet he said it’s the second time this year’s he’s driven the car and he’s offered to do it more often.
A wheel force car is basically a stock car equipped with all sorts of data-gathering gizmos that measure things such as vertical load, lateral load, camber and slip angles.
Before NASCAR outlawed testing, Johnson said his team was constantly at the track. Today, teams get two or three opportunities for track time outside of race weekends.
“I think it was probably ’08, ’09, we had our seven NASCAR tests and then we could go to other tracks and test, non-Cup venues,” he said. “We had 22 two-day test sessions in addition to our full racing schedule.
“Now to go to 1-2 organizational tests a year? My god.
“Where I really learn is hands-on, in the car, working with the team. I study video and I read notes and I go through all of that stuff that we do, but connecting it to your butt and your hands, that’s where we make our money, that’s the difference. And I only have a few ways to do that anymore, especially outside of a race weekend. So, I’m just taking any chance I can get.”
Greg Stucker, director of race tire sales for Goodyear, said Johnson’s participation was key not only because of his experience “but his skill set, too.”
“Obviously he has a good way of translating what’s going on with the race car, the tires, or any component to whoever would be looking for the information,” Stucker said. “He’s just got a good feel for the race car and he can relate that, he can communicate it well. I think that’s one reason why those guys have been so successful is because he’s been so good at doing that.
“And obviously just the experience; he’s been through a lot of different types of race tracks and different types of cars.”
Johnson said he’s encouraged his teammates – Byron, Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott – to spend time driving the wheel force vehicle. The information collected is crucial in working through the Chevrolet simulator.
“We go back to the simulator and it’s so tough because we’re very limited on data we can pull,” he said. “When we go to the simulator and have to confirm the tire modeling, it’s up to the driver’s memory and knowledge, how it felt, to confirm it. That’s what the entire simulation is built off of.
“I fundamentally have just felt like it’s something we need to be doing.”
Because the simulator is booked for both NASCAR and IndyCar teams, Johnson said his schedule hasn’t allowed him to take part in as many sessions as he would like and “close the loop.”
Officials want whoever drives the wheel force car to be in the simulator as soon as possible. “They don’t want you to be out of it for two weeks and then drive the simulator,” he said. “They want you to go straight away and drive the simulator while it’s fresh on your mind.”
A seven-time champion with 83 victories. And his foot still firmly on the gas pedal.
“It doesn’t hurt and I love to work,” Johnson said. “I do.
“Social media with all the nice and kind people that are on there like to say that I’m more interested in riding my bike but they don’t see what I put in to this.
“Anything I can to be better and help advance our team, I’m in. This is just one of those opportunities.”