Column By: REID SPENCER & HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Gone are Jimmie Johnson’s veteran teammates—Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the TV booth and Kasey Kahne to the next stage of Monster Energy Cup Series life in the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Chevrolet.
In their places at Hendrick Motorsports are 24-year-old Alex Bowman and 20-year-old Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender William Byron. Add to that mix 22-year-old Chase Elliott, who has two years at NASCAR’s highest level under his belt—and has yet to win a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.
Elliott and Byron combined have spent about as much time on Planet Earth as has Johnson, who turned 42 last September.
The infusion of new blood isn’t the only change at Hendrick. This year, the crew chiefs for all four teams will work out of the same building, with their offices side by side. That’s a paradigm shift from the previous model, which had the crew chiefs working together in pairs.
This year, too, the Chevrolet teams have a new car to race—the Camaro ZL1, which Johnson expects to be an aerodynamic improvement over last season’s Chevrolet SS.
“Obviously, a lot of change, from rules to the new Camaro, the internal restructuring that’s going on at Hendrick,” the seven-time champion said on Wednesday during Daytona 500 media day at Daytona International Speedway.
“You add that with the driver lineup, this is the most change I’ve ever seen at Hendrick Motorsports in my 16 seasons competing there. It’s a big year for the company.”
It’s also a big year for Johnson, who won his record-tying seventh title in 2016, but floundered last season after winning three of the first 13 races.
After the 2016 season, Johnson celebrated. After 2017, he went back to work.
“The ‘17 season was so hard on us the second half of the year, I literally came back from the banquet, and it was time to dig in, work on any and all areas. Much more work done this off-season due to the circumstances of where we finished (10th in the final standings).”
In fact, Johnson didn’t wait until he got home. He was on the phone to team owner Rick Hendrick the day after the NASCAR Awards in Las Vegas.
“Yeah, I left there pissed off,” Johnson acknowledged. “That sucked. I knew after we got eliminated from the Round of 8, I knew our championship hopes were closed. To relive the highlight reels, all of that, it’s like, ‘Damn, I want to be that guy. I want to get back and be that guy.’
“That was a huge shot in the arm of adrenaline to get to work. I literally started wearing Rick out on the phone: ‘What do we need to do? Where do we need to start?’”
Fortunately, there’s a new car and a new system to work with this year, because Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus never did figure out why the No. 48 car lacked speed in 2017.
“I don’t have an answer,” Johnson said. “I still don’t have an answer. Luckily, there’s so much change going on this year, we feel we have a whole new mousetrap, a whole new set of rules to deal with.
“We’ll just forget about last year and move on.”
FOR MOST POPULAR DRIVER AWARD, EVERYONE IS CHASING CHASE ELLIOTT
With the departure of Dale Earnhardt Jr. from the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, the immediate question becomes, “Who will carry the banner of the sport going forward?”
To 2014 series champion Kevin Harvick, the answer is a no-brainer.
“I really think Chase Elliott is our biggest tie to our grassroots NASCAR fan,” Harvick said Wednesday on Daytona 500 media day at Daytona International Speedway. “I’ve said this a number of times, but I feel like he’s one of the most important ingredients in what NASCAR racing does going forward, because of his family name.
“He has the legacy that’s already been built in this sport by his dad (Bill Elliott) and he’s come into this sport with a great name and already proven that he’s going to be competitive. He has those Southeast NASCAR ties to those core fans that none of the rest of us will ever have, and he’s the guy.”
Elliott, on the other hand would rather have fans relate to him for his own personality and performance.
“I think I just need to be me,” Elliott said. “It’s not really relevant to what I need to be focused on, right? I’ve encouraged people to pull for whoever they find value in pulling for, whatever they find a connection with. Whether that’s me or someone else, that’s their decision, right?”
Nor does Elliott, now in his third full year in NASCAR’s foremost series, feel the weight of his father’s legacy, founded in a career that saw him earn the nickname “Awesome Bill from Dawsonville.”
“I don’t really think there is that hanging over me, to be honest with you,” Chase Elliott said. “I think, at this point, I’ve been maybe not in the NASCAR world too terribly long, but I’ve been racing long enough that people know who I am. Not ‘know who I am’ from that standpoint, but know the personality I have. They’ve kind of gotten to know me a little better.
“I think by this point, if people are still following along, they’re following along because of the person I am, I hope. I think that’s all you can ask for. I’ve been very clear and honest about me being me, wanting people to follow along for the right reasons, finding a true connection with someone.”
Jimmie Johnson, Elliott’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, is convinced that connection has already happened.
“I think he’s already won the 2018 Most Popular Driver Award,” Johnson quipped.
“FACEBOOK WATCH” WILL DOCUMENT BUBBA WALLACE’S FIRST DAYTONA 500 RUN
On Sunday, Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. will make his first start in the Daytona 500—as the first African-American driver to compete in the Great American Race since Wendell Scott drove his No. 34 Ford to a 29th-place finish in 1969.
Fans can follow Wallace’s journey to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series on Facebook Watch, which is featuring an original series titled: “Behind the Wall: Bubba Wallace.”
The first episode of the eight-part series, produced by NASCAR Productions, will post on Thursday, Feb. 15. The episodes follow Wallace’s progress from his early days in racing to his first event as the full-time driver of the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet.
The attention at times has been overwhelming.
“NASCAR came to me with an idea of a new way to try to broaden the horizon, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it,’” Wallace told the NASCAR Wire Service. “It’s been stressful for sure. Cameras following you, around you all the time, capturing everything…
“The only time they haven’t followed me is when I go in the bathroom–that’s about it–and go to sleep. Everything else in between, they’re there to capture it. It’ll be a fun series to watch, for sure.”
With the Daytona 500 imminent, Wallace has tried to curtail some of the hoopla surrounding him.
“We went into it knowing that, once race season is here and we got down to Daytona, we kind of laid the line down of ‘OK, I’m not doing anything extra to spice up the show; if we don’t have what we have, then so be it.’
“I’m not a TV star. I’m here to race cars. We’re capturing a little bit of content while we’re down here, which is going to turn out really good. I’ve already seen a couple of first episodes, so I’m really excited about it.”
ARIC ALMIROLA TAKES A SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY HOME
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Aric Almirola made a sentimental trip home to Tampa, Fla. on Tuesday – an off-day for track activity at Daytona International Speedway.
The former Daytona Coke Zero 400 winner paid a visit to his parents’ former school, Pearce Middle School, and spoke to 300 students about his life as a race car driver. He brought the Harley J. Earl Daytona 500 winner’s trophy to show the students, and his race team sponsor, Smithfield, along with NASCAR supplied goody bags for the students.
“I always tell people, if I go there and impact one kid’s life that’s all that matters to me,” the Stewart-Haas Racing driver said. “I really hope after talking to 300 students I can have a positive impact on at least one of those kids lives and that will mean so much to me to be able to change the course for them.”
The quick stop in his hometown – which also included a visit with extended family and change to enjoy an authentic Cuban sandwich from his favorite restaurant – was important to the Hillsborough High graduate, who returned to Daytona Beach optimistic that his time in front of the students may make some sort of lasting impact.
“I feel like junior high is really the pivotal time in kids’ lives, and it was for me as well, so to have that opportunity to talk to them, encourage them and tell them don’t worry about being the cool kid in school, it’s not that important,” Almirola said. “Worry about getting good grades. Worry about doing your homework. I tell every kid, and a lot of people will attest to this. Who cares if you’re the coolest kid in school? Get good grades, that’s going to impress later in life.”