HOMESTEAD, Fla. — Jimmie Johnson went full throwback for NASCAR’s season-ending weekend, commemorating the end of two long-running eras — his time with crew chief Chad Knaus and sponsor Lowe’s. He shaved to replicate the baby-faced look of his early career, and his Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet sported a retro design at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
All the measures heightened a sense of reflection for Johnson, who came home 14th in Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400. His 17th season in NASCAR’s top series concluded without a victory for the first time in his career, and 2019 will mark a season of change for the seven-time champion. Kevin Meendering will be his crew chief, and Ally Financial will be his primary sponsor.
Johnson said the reality of the end of his partnership with Knaus began to set in as the two went through pre-race prep at the 1.5-mile track. Knaus is set to join William Byron, this year’s Sunoco Rookie of the Year, and the No. 24 team next season, but Johnson said he expected to remain heavily involved with the crew chief that he called “my brother.”
“We will work very close together and I think even on a deeper level than where we have been the last couple of years,” Johnson said. “The last couple of years have been tough. William (Byron) is a great guy and I’ve been working closely with him and obviously, Chad is going to be working with William. We will all be in there working together without a doubt.”
The 2018 campaign marked career-lows for Johnson and the No. 48 group in several key categories, including laps led, laps completed, top-five finishes and average finish. The struggles prompted a change for the longtime driver-crew chief pairing, with the announcement of next year’s Hendrick Motorsports lineup coming in October.
“Early in the year, kind of midseason when we made that decision and working through that scenario wasn’t easy,” Johnson said. “Just glad to finish with a respectable result today, but we’ve got a lot of work to do as a company. I’ve got a lot of work to do with my new team, we’ve got a lot of work to do with this new (rules) package and we’ve got to come out stronger.”
Next season will bring a new look for Johnson’s efforts. He’ll aim to build chemistry with Meendering, who moves up to the Monster Energy Series after a successful tenure with JR Motorsports on the Xfinity side. He’ll also sport a new look with Ally sponsorship, which promises to bring more than a splash of purple to the No. 48’s body panels.
More importantly, he hopes to create a new streak of winning ways.
“I’ve had such a fortunate career and I would have loved to keep that streak alive, clearly that is not the case,” said Johnson, who ended the season stuck on 83 career victories. “Instead of reflecting on this year and how bad it was because I know that reality, I’ve been living it first-hand. I just think it’s important for me and the team right now to look back on what we have done together over 17 years together.
“New sponsor, new crew chief, whole new rules package, you know, 2019 is going to be a clean start for myself and this No. 48 team.”