CONCORD, N.C. – Photo Credit Jared C Tilton/Getty Images – By now most of you have probably heard today’s big NASCAR news. Jimmie Johnson announced through a video on his social media that 2020 would be his last full season in NASCAR Cup Series competition. The 7-time Cup series champion will leave a legacy that will likely never be repeated, unless Kyle Busch starts clicking off multiple championships in a row.
Through the end of this 2019 season, Johnson has started 651 Cup series events. He has 83 wins, 227 top fives, 364 top tens and 36 poles. Though he’s been in a bit of a slump the past few seasons, his performance in the last couple of months suggests that perhaps he could add to his win total next year, and if he does that in the regular season he will have one final shot at immortality – championship No. 8.
Jimmie will be forever remembered as a champion both on and off the track. He doesn’t show off or show out, and rarely has he ever let his temper get the best of him, at least in the public eye. He has been a steady leader for Team 48, showing up and getting it done in a quiet but consistent manner. His work ethic and passion for winning has no doubt been good for every teammate he’s had, including Dale Earnhardt, Jr. His team and the sport will miss Jimmie not necessarily for his quotable quotes or personality, but for his shining example of what a champion looks like.
The answer to the question of who may fill Jimmie’s shoes beginning in 2021, in all honesty, is no one. Someone will climb into the seat of the Ally Chevrolet and do their best to win races and championships for Hendrick Motorsports, but let’s be real – nobody is going to have the success or impact that Johnson has, because the sport has changed in numerous ways since the immortal combination of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus terrorized the early days of NASCAR’s “chase” (now called “playoff”) and racked up enough Martinsville clocks to keep them apprised of the time in just about every time zone known to man.
I’ve already heard and seen talk of who may or will take Johnson’s place, but I would wonder at this point if even Rick Hendrick knows right now. I think there are several potential candidates, but let’s stop and talk for a moment about how the process needs to play out before we start throwing names around.
First, let’s understand that Mr. H has the clout and the resources to put just about anyone he wants into that seat. If he decides on a veteran, he can make that happen. If he wants to continue the youth movement he’s started with Alex Bowman and William Byron, he has a number of options. Now, the sponsor is going to have some say in the choice as well, and I would likely believe that unless something really shocking happens, the pick will come from within the 2020 lineup of Team Chevy drivers, though not necessarily from the Cup division.
Team owners and personnel are always watching the driver “draft board” and trying to position themselves to go after their choice in much the same way other sports teams do. The key difference is that in general, if a driver is under contract to another team, unless that team owner is willing to sign off on the deal, then that driver is “out of play”. You don’t see trades in motorsports the way you would in football (wouldn’t that be interesting…?), so the new driver for the 48 likely will come from outside the Cup series ranks.
Who, then? Well, we can do some speculating. There’s no harm in that.
Noah Gragson – One would think that Noah, once Tyler Reddick signed a Cup deal with RCR, became the defacto top draft pick. After all, he came from Toyota over to Chevy with a JR Motorsports Xfinity Series deal, and despite a slow start to the season he was showing up more regularly in the top five as the year wound down.
He’ll have another year in 2020 to progress and prove he’s worthy of the next step and he may be the one that is still on top of the board at this moment, but I have never thought he was an automatic lock just because he races for JR Motorsports. I think there are a few more potentials. I believe Noah’s upside potential is fantastic, but he’s going to need to continue to mature both on and off the track and win races in order to be granted the keys to the kingdom in 2021.
Daniel Hemric – Daniel inserted himself onto Mr. H’s watch list when he signed to run 21 races in the No. 8 for JR Motorsports next year. Though he’s yet to win in any national series, he’s been a championship threat in every car he’s driven until this year, and I would argue that the RCR No. 8 was not a championship caliber team, so I think Daniel, whose Cup experience will no doubt count in the evaluation, has a chance here if he can win some races in 2020 and show consistency. He’s great with sponsors, and is the type of personality that Mr. H looks for in a driver.
Ross Chastain – This one is a bit tricky, because I believe that Chip Ganassi has designs on adding Ross to his Cup series lineup. The problem is, Kurt Busch just signed a multi-year deal, so unless Kyle Larson decides to go elsewhere, Chastain may have other strong Cup options before a Ganassi seat opens up. If Ross can challenge for an Xfinity title in the Kaulig Racing ride next year, and I believe he will, then I wouldn’t count out the possibility of an offer to race for HMS.
I believe those could perhaps be the three likely candidates as of right now. There are some others that could creep into the discussion, however, based upon 2020 and how things fall. They are longshots, but one never knows what can happen in a year. For example…
John Hunter Nemechek – It appears that he and Front Row Motorsports may be negotiating an agreement to put him in either the team’s No. 36 or No. 38 cars next year, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he wouldn’t be in play for HMS if they wanted him in 2021. John Hunter has already looked impressive filling in for Matt Tifft, and although his stats in NXS with GMS Racing haven’t been as strong as he would like, I would suggest that this is more about the overall strength of that NXS team (which will not race next season) rather than a true barometer of John’s skill level. I would argue his performances in the No. 42 for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2018 prove he can run up front and win races in the right equipment.
Justin Haley – Another driver who runs in the Chevy family with Kaulig Racing, going into his second season of NXS competition with that team next year. His personality fits right in with what HMS looks for, and nobody works any harder than he does to stay in shape and prepare for each race. If he can win some races next year and go deep in the playoffs toward a championship run, his stock for Cup will surely go up, and his road race experience won’t hurt in a team’s evaluation either.
Erik Jones – I know he just signed a multi-year contract to continue to race for Joe Gibbs Racing, but Toyota is either going to need to start adding teams or they’re going to lose drivers after the Xfinity level. Christopher Bell is going to replace either Denny Hamlin or Martin Truex, whomever retires first, and if you keep Jones, and you factor in Ty Gibbs, who is probably still two or three years from Cup but obviously will end up in a house car when he’s ready, that leave two cars available for Harrison Burton, Riley Herbst, Christian Eckes, and others further downward in their vast driver pipeline to fight over.
Assuming that once JGR has their youth movement complete in Cup that they won’t have a quick hook, there are drivers who will have to do what Gragson and William Byron did and find their success elsewhere. That said, none of those Toyota hopefuls I mentioned are highly likely to be considered Cup ready in 2021 so I would feel confident that, as best we can tell at this moment, one of the six I mentioned would win the 48 sweepstakes as of this moment.
What will Johnson’s fate be in 2020? Can he win races and be a solid contender for an unprecedented eighth championship? Maybe. But he’s going to have to take another step up from where he left off this season. If he can go out with a strong run in his final full-time season, it will only add to his legacy and increase the size of the shoes his successor will have to fill the following season.