CONCORD, N.C. -- The four Hendrick Motorsports teams know that after 2020, one of their esteemed leaders will be taking a step back.
Jimmie Johnson is about to start his final full-time season, which will be the end of an era within the organization.
While Johnson previously said he’s looking forward to life without a packed travel schedule, teammates Chase Elliott, William Byron and Alex Bowman know Johnson is a driver who will be hard to replace.
“He’s been a great teammate, and he’s obviously a great leader and he’s become a really good friend of mine,” Elliott said. “Any time someone that’s had his kind of success in this sport has something to say, you definitely want to listen. I’ve enjoyed having him around and I hate that he’s going to be gone.
“I feel like he brings an important piece to our dynamic and this company to the table and I hate to see that go," he added. "We just have to appreciate this last year and enjoy it. A year is a long time. Thirty eight races is a long time. I am going to enjoy it. Just to say that you’ve raced with probably the best to ever do it is pretty cool. To have him work alongside you throughout the years is even cooler.”
Johnson will have 19 years of full-time racing under his belt by the time he steps back. In his first 18 seasons, he’s won seven championships, two DAYTONA 500s, four ALL-STAR races and has been in 651 career races.
Johnson hasn’t secured a Cup Series win since June 2017. Bowman said it “would be awesome” if Johnson won at Daytona or any other race this season to close out a storied career.
“He is every bit as capable as anyone to do it. He has had a rough couple of years, but it’s definitely doable,” Bowman said.
However, there is a bit of a competitive edge that comes with Bowman wanting Johnson to be successful in 2020.
“Jimmie has been awesome as a teammate,” he said. “It’s been an unbelievable opportunity to try to be a sponge when he is around and learn everything I can from him. At the same time, I am just focused on my own deal. I hope he has a great last full-time year and I hope he goes out on top. He deserves it for sure. I am going to do all I can to beat him, though.”
Johnson has served as a mentor to his younger three teammates over the years. It’s unclear how that leadership role will be filled once Johnson is done racing full-time, but Bowman said he thinks there will be a natural development as to who assumes that commanding position.
"You can’t just walk in and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to be the leader of this deal’. It definitely has to happen organically over time,” Bowman said. “We’ll have to wait and see how that happens, who it is and all that.”
Byron added it would be unfair to assume Elliott will take over that role just because he has the second-longest tenure with Hendrick Motorsports among the active teammates. For now, he said another Hendrick Motorsports legend will step up to serve in that advisor role.
“I think Jeff Gordon has been a really vital asset for us because of the youth that we have within our team,” Byron explained. “I don't think you can really expect, I don't know how old Chase is, 24, 25, I don't think you can really expect someone of our age to really assume that role. I don't think that's really necessary.
“But I think other people, or all of us, can really contribute. I think the best sign of an organization, as you see with Kyle (Busch) and Denny (Hamlin), Martin (Truex Jr.), Erik (Jones) - how well they do of all four of them contributing. I think that's what has to happen. All four guys have to contribute at a high level so that everyone is better.”
One thing is for certain: Johnson has had a huge impact on Elliott, Byron and Bowman’s careers, both on and off the track.
For Elliott, that puts Johnson in a league of his own.
“He brings something to the table that no one else has ever done – I don’t think is matched,” Elliott said. “I think it’s going to be hard to replace that piece and I don’t think you are going to replace it. You just have to figure out a way to step up and make it work after he leaves. It’s going to be tough. He’s a great leader and brings a lot to the table.”