DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- One of the great revelations of getting older is that one experiences more great revelations. These days, Jimmie Johnson, at age 43, finds himself walking in a virtual garden of such epiphanies.
"I am not old, but I am older," he said Wednesday afternoon, rubbing his gray-tinged beard as he sat in a room overlooking familiar real estate, Daytona International Speedway's Victory Lane. He has celebrated on that spot multiple times, including a pair of Daytona 500 wins and a victory in last weekend's Advance Auto Parts Clash all-star exhibition. "I don't know about becoming wiser with age, but I do know that I am constantly surprised by the surprises that life keeps bringing me."
You'd expect such discoveries at the Johnson house. Any parent will tell you that every day with a child brings lessons, both wanted and not so much. Any parent of two little girls, as Johnson is, will tell you the same, but with exclamation points.
However, you likely wouldn't expect for Johnson to find himself still being schooled at the racetrack. This is a man who has won seven NASCAR Cup series championships and 83 races. If he retired today (and he very much would like you to know that he's not) he would be greeted at the entrance to the NASCAR Hall of Fame with trumpets and palm fronds. It's a career that started alongside racers born in the 1950s and currently runs door-to-door with drivers birthed at the latest turn of the century. Johnson has seen so much. Yet here, on the eve of his 18th full season at stock car racing's highest level, everything feels as if NASCAR should put a yellow rookie stripe on his back bumper.
Gone is Chad Knaus, the only Cup series crew chief Johnson has ever had. He has moved across the hallway to work with wunderkind William Byron and been replaced by Kevin Meendering, who has worked at and around Hendrick Motorsports since he interned there as a teenager. Like Knaus, he started at HMS by sweeping the floors. Unlike Knaus, he has never before called the shots as a Cup crew chief. Last Sunday, Knaus and Byron won the Daytona 500 pole. A few hours later, Meendering and Johnson won the Clash.
Gone is the familiar blue paint (and green money) of Lowe's, the only Cup sponsor that Johnson has ever had. The home improvement warehouse has been replaced by Ally Bank, a progressively purple financial institution that has chosen to roll the dice on NASCAR sponsorship when more and more companies are not.
To most, so much change would feel overwhelming. To the typical NASCAR veteran, it would feel like a lot of hassle in the latter stages of one's career. Johnson is nothing if not atypical. To him, the No. 48 car's extreme makeover has been energizing. "I think the approach has been so different, to everything, that it has given me energy from the standpoint of, hey, I honestly didn't know we could do it this way."
Lowe's routinely handed down the paint jobs for the No. 48 Chevy from corporate HQ with little or no discussion. Ally's marketing brass caught Johnson off guard when they not only came to him for input on the new look of his ride, they basically gave him carte blanche.
Meendering's approach has been cut from the same sheet metal. Since its announcement as primary sponsor in October, Ally has already called multiple meetings with its driver to ask, "How do you want to do this?" On Tuesday, the new No. 48 crew held its team meeting. Meendering caused Johnson to do a double take when, in front of the entire team, he asked the driver for strategic input on the upcoming Duel 150 qualifying races and the Daytona 500.
"On both sides, I have a crew chief and a sponsor that both like, 'No, we want more, more, more more. ... Get in here. How do you want it? How do you want to see the car look? How do you want me to call a race?' It's just a way, way different environment now."
Knaus, also a NASCAR Hall of Fame shoo-in, has a well-earned taskmaster's reputation. It has long been his way at the speedway, a playbook he learned from his first Hendrick Motorsports mentor, Ray Evernham. The results of that approach were inarguable ... until last season, the first winless campaign of Johnson's career. The Johnson-Knaus relationship had always been prickly, a motorsports marriage in every sense, even requiring a handful of what team owner Rick Hendrick once described as "couples counseling sessions." Finally, by last fall, they both recognized it was time to move on, even with the once-thought unreachable mark of an eighth Cup championship in their sight.
"I feel like if Chad and I could have evolved a bit more ..." Johnson pauses to ensure his next words are the right ones. "The reason I say that is because I feel that Chad is very good at bringing a young guy along. So, I don't know if we could have evolved together. But the situation he is in now, to teach a young team and to teach a young guy in William [Byron], that is his sweet spot."
Again, he takes a beat. He wants to make damn sure he makes his point without pointing a finger.
"For a veteran, in my shoes, and where we ended up with our relationship, I don't think that I needed that kind of leadership. Come race time, there were a lot of things we did that I didn't need. I thought that maybe we could have spent that time elsewhere, working on something else. But that is Chad's natural cadence and rhythm. And for William, that is perfect for William at this point in his career."
Meendering's dialed-down managerial style would seem to be perfect for Johnson at this stage of his racing life. In that Tuesday meeting, Johnson was taken aback when Meendering ran that discussion at such a level of chill, but yet they still hit all of the crucial facts and broke down the most pertinent data ahead of the season's biggest race.
During Sunday's Clash, Johnson grew angry that NASCAR was taking too long to sort out the field for a restart and, in his words, "totally lost my s---." He started barking at his new crew chief to make sure he was lobbying race control so that their car wasn't lost in the shuffle. In the past, Johnson knew instinctively that Knaus would have already flipped out on those officials. He had no idea how Meendering would react. But Johnson knew that he had overreacted. Afterward, the racer apologized, fearing that he might have freaked out the new guy. Instead, that new guy only shrugged.
"I've worked with a lot of different drivers in my career, so I don't read too much into that kind of stuff," Meendering explained after the race win. Then, grinning, he added, "Jimmie's only worked with the one crew chief, so we'll cut him slack this time."
The driver says he now has "all the leash in the world" and here's the biggest of his late-career epiphanies: For the first time it feels like his team might actually be his team, for better or for worse.
"I feel like, in a way, I'm bringing more to the table. Because I'm left with my own thoughts and my own ideas. I don't want anyone to think I'm not engaged or involved. It's led me to being in there, with the team and in my race car, on a deeper level."
Now the NASCAR world is watching to see if that deeper level leads the greatest driver of his generation back to his old level of success. There are plenty who hope it does not. There have always been many who have believed Johnson was merely the beneficiary of Knaus's genius and he will fail without him. There were also plenty who reveled in his struggles one year ago. Some did so very loudly. And the 43-year-old dad race car driver hears what everyone always says about 43-year-old dad race car drivers -- that the fire is gone, the fearlessness has fizzled out and retirement is imminent.
To those who have said one or all of the above, Johnson has heard you. And he knows who you are.
Last November, at a ride-swap event with Formula One champion Fernando Alonso in Abu Dhabi, Johnson was approached by 2003 Indy 500 champ Gil de Ferran, who is now the sporting director for the McLaren F1 team. He retired from driving at 40, and he explained to Johnson that he had done so because, while he still loved race weekends, he just couldn't stomach the through-the-week work that it took to stay sharp. "Do you really still want to work?" de Ferran asked Johnson.
"I said, 'Hell yes!' I know that point will come one day. But it hasn't happened yet. We'll see when it does. I guess we all have that clock ticking and when it happens it happens ..."
As for those people who say it already has?
"I just laugh at them. They're just a pain in my ass. They motivate me. So, I guess, in a way, I should thank them for that. One day I will. But for now, I have to go to work. And with all that's happening right now, all that I am suddenly learning about racing and about myself, at 43 ... guess what? I'm excited to go to work."