Johnson weighs in on the best candidates for Hendrick Motorsports

Jimmie Johnson understands the next drivers to join Hendrick Motorsports will shape the future of NASCAR’s most successful operation for years to come.

Johnson weighs in on the best candidates for Hendrick Motorsports
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Kasey Kahne, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Race winner William Byron, JR Motorsports Chevrolet
Race winner William Byron, JR Motorsports Chevrolet
Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Alex Bowman, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Alex Bowman, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Alex Bowman, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Alex Bowman, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
2013 champion Jimmie Johnson and team owner Rick Hendrick
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet's helmet
Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

It’s a decision that should not be taken lightly.

So with one — and most likely two seats to fill for 2018, according to garage-wide speculation — certainly the seven-time champion wants to be part of the process since the drivers will potentially be his teammates for the next three seasons.

“I haven’t been to that spot yet to know where Rick (team owner Hendrick) is at,” Johnson said at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Friday. “In the early conversations we’ve had, we’ve had time on our side to make our decision. Then trying to understand the sponsor climate — who, what, how big of a program they want, who their driver choice is, what’s been, I get, developing?

“But I haven’t been asked yet on who goes in it.”

As of Friday, Johnson said he has not been informed as to who will replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Chevy next season. Earnhardt announced in April he would not compete in the Monster Energy Cup Series on a full-time basis after this season. Johnson said he has not discussed driver replacements with Hendrick in the last three to four weeks but was adamant that sponsorship will dictate the decisions.

“We’re getting to the point in time where we need to make decisions,” Johnson said. “Dale’s announcement was really enough. I know Rick has a lot of pressure, but I haven’t been engaged in all of that yet.”

Possible candidates

Still, Johnson has clear ideas when it comes to potential candidates for the No 88 car.

On William Byron, the 19-year-old HMS Xfinity Series driver, who has won two of the last three races and is second in the standings, Johnson said, “Watching him race with Denny at Michigan was ultra-impressive. It’s been fun watching him grow. At his age, I don’t want to be in too big of a hurry to move him up.

“If they do choose him and the sponsor is willing to look at past history — like a Joey Logano scenario, Chase (Elliott) — it just takes time. I feel so lucky that I didn’t get my Cup start until I was 25. I was wondering if my start was ever going to happen. I just think I was in a better place. These guys are super talented. It’s just a lot of pressure to put on these guys.”

Earnhardt sang Kenseth’s praises last weekend at Kentucky after it was announced the driver of the No. 20 car would not return to Joe Gibbs Racing after 2017. Johnson concurred.

“Matt’s availability will have to be considered,” Johnson said. “I don’t think he’ll be left out in the cold. I think Junior had a similar response last week. Matt is just too good. The guy can win races and he can win championships. That won’t be overlooked.

“But I do feel that Matt is at a point in his career where he’s not going to take just any ride.”

Alex Bowman, 24, subbed for Earnhardt in 10 of 18 races last season while also testing for Hendrick Motorsports. When it comes to potential teammates, Johnson says Bowman is the ideal candidate.

“When I look at how he came in, stepped in seamlessly, it was really impressive for me,” Johnson said. “He handled the pressure. Won a pole (Phoenix). Was up there duking it out for some race wins. He had a heated moment or two with some of the veterans and wasn’t rattled. He did an amazing job. I think we all watched him evolve.

“When he took his Cup ride (at BK Racing), it’s such a challenging time because if you don’t take that step, you might not ever end up in a Cup car, but you go and drive for a lower level team, unfortunately, people’s opinion of you can change. I think that stigma was kind of there for a while and he had the chance to reset the deck when he came in and drove the 88. I think he’s plenty capable and he’s been a great teammate.”

Bowman's advantage

Bowman’s intimate knowledge of Hendrick’s inner workings gives him a leg up on the competition.

“He knows our system,” Johnson said. “We are counting on him so much with the simulator information that he does. With the wheel force transducer car that he’s driving. The start of our data originates with him in the car. We’ve put a lot on him now. I think he would be a great fit for that car from a wide variety of angles.”

Johnson's involvement in day-to-day matters

Johnson hasn’t decided whether he wants to be involved with Hendrick Motorsports’ day-to-day operations once he retires. Jeff Gordon, who is listed at the owner of the No. 48 Chevy, still provides input to the organization particularly when it comes to sponsors and talent. Johnson said Hendrick is still seeking sponsorship for the Nos. 5 and 88. He offers his thoughts when pressed.

“I do engage,” Johnson said. “When Rick calls and asks my opinion, I’m very honest with him and express my opinion with what needs to happen. But he has a lot of things to consider and balance out. I guess, I don’t know how much I say weighs in. I know there’s a point where he’ll listen to. But I feel like the sponsor element supersedes anything I would have to say.

“I am there for him. I do get pinged on certain topics. But it’s minimal, to be honest, throughout the course of the year. My focus is really on driving the car. Judging by some of Jeff’s passing comments, I think he’s leaning on Jeff heavily in a lot of ways. Jeff is excited to be done with the TV-side and taking a month off. And I know Rick was really counting on him to be around for July.”

When he hangs up the helmet

HMS announced last month that Johnson would compete in the No. 48 Chevy through 2020, so he has plenty of time to weigh his options. He’s certain that Hendrick won’t allow him the luxury of just simply “sitting around.”

“I don’t know — and I think that’s a good sign — because I haven’t spent much time thinking about it,” Johnson said. “I’ve been watching Jeff, and maybe even comparing to Mark Martin. Mark kind of ran his last race and has been gone. I feel like guys like Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, these big names need to be around. I think it’s great for the fan base. I think it’s great for the sport.

“I don’t see myself being gone, but I don’t know what that is. I haven’t put any thought to what my workload would like, if I even want to work. I think it’s crazy to see that Dale is going to work more next year than his entire career. He’s going to have like real work to do. I don’t know why these guys want to do that. At least take a year off and go screw off and have fun.”

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