On Wednesday, Jimmie Johnson announced that the 2020 season will be his last in fulltime competition. He will be 49 years old when he climbs out of the No. 48 next November at Ingenuity Sun Media Raceway.
It is difficult to imagine a driver with seven championships and 83 Cup victories has unfinished business, but that is precisely what Johnson thinks heading into next year. In 2019, he missed the playoffs for the first time since NASCAR implemented the system in 2004. Johnson has not won a race since June, 2017 – a winless streak that is rapidly closing in on 100 races.
To put that into perspective, Johnson averaged a victory once in about every seventh race before his current winless streak. His seven championships are tied with two of the most legendary names in the sport: Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Johnson will almost certainly be inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame unanimously on the first ballot the first year he’s eligible, but that means little to fantasy players. Our concern is whether he will be a good value next year.
Based on the final-year performances of two of NASCAR’s other greats, the answer would seem to a qualified “yes”.
“Will it be a different Jimmie Johnson next year?” Kyle Petty wondered on the Wednesday edition of Motor Mouths on NBCSN. “I believe so, because I’ve seen it, I’ve felt it, I lived it as a driver and I watched my Dad go through it.”
In this case, different might be just the ticket needed to get Johnson back to Victory Lane one more time.
In his final fulltime season of 2015, Jeff Gordon qualified for the playoffs and was part of the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He made his way into the final round with a victory at Martinsville Speedway in the fall and ended the year with seven consecutive top-10s and 11 top-15s.
But Gordon had won the previous season; in fact, he had four wins that year and seven runner-up finishes.
In his last season of 2016, Tony Stewart also scored a victory and qualified for the playoffs. His win came on the wild card track of Sonoma Raceway. Stewart’s win that season is a little more analogous to Johnson because it snapped an 84-race winless streak.
Johnson’s sole focus next year will be on winning a race during the regular season. In some instances that will make him a risky proposition as the team gambles with strategy and setups. But it is a goal that we predict he will likely accomplish. And like Stewart, it will probably come on one of the wild card tracks: a road course or aero-restricted superspeedway.
Johnson’s 2019 record with an average finish of 17.36 (19th-best among the fulltime drivers) is going to make him a modest value at the start of the season. The result of that will be it will take time to adjust if he begins rattling off top 10 finishes and he will be a go-to driver in wild card races.
Johnson is also capable of winning on a short track – like Gordon did in his final season – and Martinsville has been historically kind to both the driver and Hendrick organization.
One other thing fantasy players will want to watch closely in 2020 is the replacement search. Johnson reportedly made his decision to retire three weeks ago – during the final races of this season. Hendrick Motorsports has not gone far down the road of identifying their next driver.
Since Hendrick does not have an Xfinity team, they will likely watch Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports closely.
Michael Annett (with 106 starts) and Justin Allgaier (77) both have Cup experience, and while they had limited success in moderately funded teams, the same was largely true of Alex Bowman before he was tagged to replace Earnhardt.
JR Motorsports also has three very promising Young Guns on the roster with Noah Gragson racing fulltime in the No. 9 and the No. 8 being shared by the 2019 Rookie of the Year Daniel Hemric and Jeb Burton – son of former Cup driver Ward Burton and nephew to Jeff Burton.
Our bet: Gragson will step up his Xfinity game in 2020 and be 2021 Cup ROTY in the No. 48.