A trip to NASCAR's final race near Miami often has involved a coronation and a sip of champagne for Hendrick Motorsports.
Riding on the dominance of the No .48 team and the dynamic chemistry between Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, Johnson has won seven Cup titles under the Hendrick Motorsports banner since 2006.
The dynamics in play as the team rides into Phoenix for the penultimate race before the Championship 4 run Nov. 19 at Homestead-Miami Speedway are very different. Johnson and teammate Chase Elliott are still in the playoff mix, but only as long-shot outsiders. With Elliott ranked seventh and Johnson eighth in the playoff standings – and only one playoff berth still unsettled – the math is very clear:
Win at Phoenix to avoid elimination.
Never miss a local story.
"We both know what our challenges are, and hopefully one of us can do it," Elliott said via phone on Tuesday afternoon. "We have to win. We know that plain as day."
Whatever happens, consider this a year of transition and a great deal of frustration for a group that was once considered the most dominant of all the super-teams in the garage.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is winless in his final season, grinding out laps without much success. Maybe it's something technical, but most likely a combination of a man who wants to start a family in good health and isn't going to take any crazy risks for some short-term satisfaction on the track.
Kasey Kahne was bounced in the first round of the playoffs. He was also bounced from the Hendrick team earlier in the season when it announced that Elliott would take over the No. 5 team and bring his father's iconic No. 9 to the Hendrick garage in 2018. Kahne has since signed a deal with Levine Family Racing.
Earnhardt will be replaced by Alex Bowman in the No. 88 Chevrolet in 2018. And William Byron will replace Elliott in the No. 24 Chevrolet in 2018, leaving Johnson as the one veteran among a group of three rising young drivers.
"Alex and William have been racing long enough that there's nothing I can tell them," Elliott said. "They know how to do their job. They're in the situation they're going to be in next year for a reason. They've had success along the way. There's nothing that I know driving that they don't already know. They'll be just fine."
The hope remains for a walk-off home run in Phoenix.
"It's been a good track for us," Johnson said after finishing 27th in Texas this past weekend. "But this last half of the year has been really weird. In places where we expect to run well and traditionally do, we haven't. But I know we're building a better race car and taking a few new ideas to Phoenix and we'll go there and fight as hard as we can. And that's one thing this team will never do is give up."
In what continues to be a year of unprecedented change in the sport involving a parade of veterans leaving, Matt Kenseth announced last week in Texas that he has no plans to drive in 2018.
"I'm not committing to anything for 2018," Kenseth said. "I'm just going to take some time off, whatever that means. I don't know if that's a year, two years, three months, four months. You never know what happens.
"Maybe something comes along that really makes me excited and feels like it's going to be a fit and you might go do. I'm certainly not going to rule that out. For now, I'm not making plans for 2018. I plan on taking some time off."
Joe Gibbs Racing bumped Kenseth from his 2018 ride in July, replacing him with Erik Jones. With a high salary and sponsorships drying up, Kenseth has not been able to secure a ride.
Aric Almirola's move to Stewart-Haas Racing will become official Wednesday. The race team has called a press conference to confirm what insiders already know: Almirola will replace Danica Patrick in the No. 10 car next season.
Almirola will bring along his sponsor Smithfield, which has helped finance his ride at Richard Petty Motorsports for the last six seasons. Smithfield will also continue to work with Richard Petty Motorsports in an undetermined capacity.
Petty and Smithfield reached an amicable truce after a terse back-and-forth when news broke of Almirola's jump to SHR.
"We're pleased that there has been a resolution to this misunderstanding. Smithfield has enjoyed its six-year relationship with RPM and like any NASCAR supporter, we want to continue to see the No. 43 car on the track for years to come," Smithfield said in a statement. "Richard is truly a legend in NASCAR – a sport and community of fans that we love and are proud to continue to support in 2018."
Bubba Wallace will drive the No. 43 for Petty Motorsports next season.
ABOUT THE WRITER
George Diaz is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.