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A new role for Jimmie Johnson: ‘I’ll learn as I go’

Hendrick Motorsports will never be able to replace the impact Jeff Gordon had on his teammates, but Jimmie Johnson is ready to take on the leadership role to guide Dale Jr., Kasey Kahne, and Chase Elliott.

There’s no formal title that denotes the role (“six-time series champion” probably is enough anyway), but Jimmie Johnson has sensed a subtle shift in responsibilities this offseason.

Entering his 15th full-time season at Hendrick Motorsports, Johnson unquestionably is the organization’s dean of drivers with the retirement of Jeff Gordon, and management increasingly is leaning on him for input on the direction of engineering and R&D projects.

“I’m talking more to the department heads,” Johnson, 40, said during the Media Tour two weeks ago. “I know there will be more I need to pay attention to and put my Hendrick Motorsports hat on. I’m excited about that.

“It’s not a defined role by any means. I’ll learn as I go. To be at this company for 15 years, I’m honored to be in this loosely senior role that’s there for me. If the day comes I have to make some decisions and responsibility falls on my shoulders, I hope I do the right job.”

It’ll help the comfort level if his No. 48 Chevrolet is running better, too, and Johnson said there have been encouraging signs after disappointing stretches in 2015. After winning four of the first 13 races, Johnson endured a 12-race span from July through October in which he earned one top five and didn’t lead a lap – an unprecedented drought for his career.

It ended with a 41st at Dover International Speedway that eliminated Johnson from the playoffs in the first-round finale. But he led in five of the season’s final seven races, earning a fifth victory at Texas Motor Speedway and his first pole position in more than a year the following week at Phoenix International Raceway.

“I don’t think at the end of the year we were where we wanted to be, but we closed the gap,” Johnson said. “We made some great hires through the offseason with key personnel.”

The new staff is adapting to a new set of rules, a lower-downforce package that should be better suited to Johnson’s style. In a test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch, Johnson’s car was the fastest.

“Indications are showing we’re going the right way,” he said. “The equipment is really good. There are things we weren’t doing correctly, and that’s the area we need to get better. Sure, we’ve made the parts and pieces better on the cars, but the amount of time we’ve invested in one another, the human equity, that part has grown leaps and bounds, and that part will pay off.”

Crew chief Chad Knaus believes his rapport with Johnson – which began in 2002 and is the longest-running crew chief-driver tandem in NASCAR – will be critical because the new rules will require more adaptability.

“Jimmie needs the ability to express what he is feeling in the cars,” Knaus said. “The drivers that can communicate well with engineers and crew chiefs will have a distinct advantage. That’s one thing Jimmie and I have.

“(It) was a hindrance when we had the cars with all the downforce, because there wasn’t a heck of lot you could do. Now you’re going to have to work. The setup at Charlotte isn’t going to be the same at Texas. Last year, 75% of field took same setup from Charlotte to Texas. It’s not going to work that way this year.”