After a trying 2017 season, seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has endured a rough start to 2018. With finishes of 38th, 27th and 12th, Johnson sits 29th in the standings entering this weekend's event in Phoenix.
Will he turn things around? Will the No. 48 team regain its championship form of previous years? Our experts weigh in.
Is it time for Johnson to panic?
Ricky Craven, ESPN NASCAR analyst: No, and you won't sense any panic from Johnson or crew chief Chad Knaus. But there will be many hours of overtime this month at Hendrick Motorsports because the product they are bringing to the track isn't up to par. What they incorporate today won't completely be ready to hit the track for a few weeks.
Ryan McGee, ESPN senior writer: Nah. It's barely March. Panic isn't really how they've done things over there and the way they've done things over there, that's typically worked out pretty well for them. The way the postseason format is now, you just need to be ready by the end of summer. That's a long ways away from now.
Alisha Miller, ESPN.com: Panic? No. Nervousness? Some, yeah. There's time for the No. 48, and lest we forget the seven-time Cup champ, to course correct. The races are short, but the season is long.
Scott Page, Jayski editor: No. Concern maybe, but not panic. The team is obviously struggling a bit, but with this playoff system Johnson needs only one win to lock himself in and Hendrick is likely to improve the cars as the season continues. By the time the playoffs hit, it would be foolish to not consider him a contender.
Bob Pockrass, ESPN.com: No. The way the playoffs are set up, he just has to be good through August, very good through mid-October and then great the past four weeks.
Marty Smith, ESPN: Absolutely not. Rarely is the 48 this far off the leaders' performance level. But we're three weeks into the season and they're driving a brand new car model. They have five months -- five months -- to figure this out. And it takes only one win.
Scott Symmes, ESPN.com: A seasoned and proven group like this one isn't going to panic after three weeks, especially when you consider that the win-and-in playoff format gives struggling teams time to figure things out. But there has to be some anxiety, right? It's more than just a few bad races; Johnson has one top-5 since his win at Dover in June.
Matt Willis, ESPN Stats & Information: To break out a "Simpsons" quote, do I think it's time to panic? Yes, I would, Kent. Well, panic is a strong word, I don't think there should be lights and sirens going off at the Hendrick shop, but right now the Hendrick drivers rank 17th (Alex Bowman), 21st (Chase Elliott), 24th (William Byron) and 29th (Johnson) in points, and only Elliott has showed signed of being a factor in races. Johnson specifically should be worried, as he's at an age, 42, when drivers have shown signs of falling off. And his 25.7 average finish is his worst through three races in his 17 full seasons.
Are the No. 48 team's struggles simply an equipment issue, or are there mistakes being made on the track?
Craven: When the lack of productivity goes as long as this has (almost one year), it's a combination of several things. It begins with the driver losing the "feel" he desires in his car. If that feel or lack of car balance isn't addressed or corrected, it leads to a driver trying too hard, a swing-for-the-fence mentality that almost always compromises the team's efforts. It's imperative that Johnson drives as hard as he can without being out of control, otherwise the information he delivers to his team could lead it down the wrong path or simply frustrate everyone. It's no different than a baseball player in a batting slump. You have to go back to the fundamentals, spend extra time in the batting cage and produce solid at-bats. That's the equivalent of top-10 finishes for the No. 48 team. When that becomes common, they will find themselves contending for wins again.
McGee: The driver certainly isn't the reason they spent all weekend at Vegas in tech inspection. And Daytona wrecks are always a push at best, even when you're in three of them in a week. It just feels like a guy and team who aren't super thrilled with their ride right now. Can you blame him? The new Camaro + replacing the only car chief he's ever had = ground to make up.
Miller: Following yet another finish outside of the top 10 on Sunday, I keep going back to a Johnson quote on the new Camaro: "This car is so new to us we are still learning every time we get on the track." Add on that Daytona is not like Atlanta and Atlanta is not like Las Vegas and you have an ever-changing puzzle for Knaus & Co. to piece together. I'm blaming the equipment -- for now.
Page: A bit of both. All the Hendrick cars seem to be a bit off so far and Johnson has admitted that he's probably trying to get more out of the cars than he should. The fix is a bit of a chicken-and-egg issue. Which will come first?
Pockrass: Every driver makes mistakes but, at least this year, it doesn't appear that Johnson has made an abundance of them. Mistakes are harder to overcome when you don't have confidence in the equipment.
Smith: That new car I mentioned. ... We've seen in the past with the 48 group that poor performance can produce tremendous frustration -- milk and cookies being the most notable. But we've also seen Johnson and Knaus jump from average to superhuman seemingly out of nowhere. It'll take time and exhaustive effort, something no one there is afraid of. Their lack of speed and performance are surprising, but too early for genuine concern.
Symmes: At this point, it's more about the equipment, as all the Chevy teams are trying to dial in the new Camaro. As for on-track mistakes, the arm-chair quarterback in me can recall some (mostly late last year), which were likely a product of Johnson trying to get too much out of an ill-handling car.
Willis: There are mistakes being made on the track, seemingly because Johnson is pressing to make up for Hendrick equipment that has fallen behind the other super teams like Stewart-Haas, Gibbs and Penske. Hendrick hasn't mastered the new car, but it struggled with the old one last year as well, winning only four races, its fewest since 2000 (also four). Out of 36 races last year, only once did Hendrick have a driver lead the most laps, and it was Elliott, not Johnson.
Can Johnson return to championship form? Rate his chances on a scale from 1 to 10.
Craven: Absolutely. Nine. Everything we are seeing from Kevin Harvick today exists within Johnson, whose team needs to help him rediscover that edge -- by delivering a more competitive car, maintaining consistent, mistake-free pit stops, and challenging one another while maintaining a positive tone. Johnson's spotter is a critical component as well. Spotters are more than your eyes in the sky; they can be your coach or cheerleader when you need it most. It's a slow process.
McGee: Eight. Those who get off to hot starts will inevitably have a slump and those who start in slumps inevitably will hit a hot streak. Those who do none of the above were never going to be a title contender in the first place. The longest season in professional sports, the same sport that now gives teams a chance to make the postseason with just one great weekend, none of that adds up to panic, especially if you've already won seven Cups.
Miller: Seven. The potential is there, as it always has been. We'll see how the Camaro treats Johnson and how Johnson adjusts to regaining that championship swagger from No. 29 in the Cup standings as we await Phoenix, Fontana and Martinsville.
Page: Seven. Never count out a seven-time champ, especially this early. However, you do have to wonder if some of the struggles last year and so far this season are a sign that this team isn't what it used to be. Could they be in the midst of a gradual decline that they can't overcome?
Pockrass: Eight in this current format. Six in the old format.
Smith: Yes. Eight.
Symmes: Hot take: The No. 48 team, as we know it, is done with seriously contending for titles. So I'll give Johnson a four. Sure, I might be eating my words come the fall, but there's not much evidence to suggest the Johnson-Knaus magic still exists.
Willis: I'm giving it a five, and only because Johnson keeps himself in tremendous physical condition. Johnson will be 43 by season's end. The only drivers to win championships at 43 or older are Dale Earnhardt (1994) and Bobby Allison (1983). It's not higher because this isn't a three-race, 2018-only trend. Last year, Johnson had career-worst marks in top-5s, top-10s and average finish. He hasn't had a top-10 finish in the past nine races, and hasn't won in a career-long 26 races. It's not an anomaly, it's a sign that either Hendrick has slipped, Johnson is past his prime or, gasp, both.