May 30, 2019 | By Lee Spencer

Back to basics approach bodes well for Johnson

Photo by Donald Page/Getty Images

Next Tuesday will mark the two-year anniversary of Jimmie Johnson’s last Monster Energy NASCAR Cup win.

A lot has changed in the 72 races since the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team parked in Victory Lane at Dover International Speedway. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne, Jamie McMurray, Danica Patrick and Matt Kenseth have retired from competition. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. have won a combined 46 races. And Johnson’s teammate, Chase Elliott, has tallied four victories.

Johnson has experienced his own evolution. The seven-time champion parted ways with Chad Knaus, the crew chief who led the seven-time champ to all of his titles and 81 of his 83 Cup wins. But after consecutive top-10 finishes at Kansas Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway, Johnson appears to be back on track with new crew chief Kevin Meendering.

What’s next on the list?

“Win, win, win,” Johnson said with a laugh.

There were more changes for Johnson prior to the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday night—wholesale changes on the No. 48 Ally Chevrolet that were incorporated for the first time in 2019. Johnson described the strategy as “a more basic approach to things.” Although he struggled with the handling of the car and hit the wall with 10 laps remaining in the race while running in the top five, Johnson was encouraged with the team’s performance and his eighth-place result.

“We’re going in the right direction,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of people not far from here that work countless hours to get it right. We’re learning and growing every week.”

As a whole, Hendrick Motorsports has clearly turned a corner. Chase Elliott has vaulted from 10th in the standings to third with four straight top fives, including a win at Talladega. Before Alex Bowman’s seventh-place finish at Charlotte, the No. 88 team scored three-consecutive second-place results. William Byron earned his second pole qualifying for the Coke 600 and this third top 10 in the race.

By adopting a similar game plan, all four Hendrick drivers finished in the top 10 for the first time in three years (Texas, April 2016). As a result, Hendrick also has four drivers in the top 16 in the Playoff standings for the first time since the 2015 August Pocono race.

“It’s a tricky deal because with my experience and desire to push the envelope, we’ve been taking too many risks,” Johnson said. “We’ve been too aggressive with our car setups and car builds. (At Charlotte) it was about going back to basics and we had a very competitive car all night long.

“At times, you sit still and you think the world passes you up, then you’re aggressive and sometimes too aggressive and you have to pull it back. I think we found center here and we should be in good shape.”

When it comes to the axiom of teaching an old dog new tricks, that could apply to Johnson and other veteran drivers when it comes to the latest iteration of the Generation 6 car. While his numbers are trending better than last year—Johnson won his first pole in three years, has improved his average finish and led more laps (68) in his first 13 starts than all of 2018—the stark decrease in horsepower is a lot to overcome.

“We’re all learning how to race it and when you need to be aggressive,” Johnson said. “The restarts—with the low horsepower—if you can keep it wound up and rolling you're just so much faster than other people. That’s the opportunity we’re all trying to find, that outside lane, to keep the momentum going.

“It’s pretty hard to pass after that, but as long as there is a pack and some drafting going on, I think there will be a good show and it’s translating well for the fans.”

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