Resolute in his talent, Jimmie Johnson says he can improve after lackluster '17

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jimmie Johnson doesn't look at the worst season of his career and believe he has suffered a dip in talent.

At 42 years old and as a driver who made his name for being able to loosen up a car's handling to the point where he could outrun the competition, it would make sense that his decline could be a result of his reaction skills being just a tick slower.

But Johnson says he has all the talent that carried him to a string of five consecutive titles from 2006 to '10, then again to titles in 2013 and 2016. He believes his leadership and communication -- not to mention a new Chevrolet body style with the Camaro replacing the Chevrolet SS -- will be the keys in determining whether the Hendrick Motorsports driver improves on a year where his average finish was a career-worst 16.8.

"I am, in my heart of hearts, a better driver today than I was at 35," Johnson said Tuesday at the NASCAR media days at the Charlotte Convention Center. "There's just a lot of pieces of the puzzle to get it right.

"That [talent piece] is not it. If you look at the car count I went through [because of crashes], it showed I was taking more chances and [driving] on that ragged edge a lot more."

Or all those crashes could mean that Johnson has lost that edge, that advantage that made him virtually untouchable.

"I don't think so," Johnson said. "We were at a pretty big deficit with our car. I'm very optimistic about this year and having a better car. Some of my habits that I think helped me in those dominant years [when the] center of corner speed was a lot lower, it was a lot easier to slide cars at that speed.

"The higher the speed, the more you need the rear locked down in the car. Going down the road I know how [to improve], which is loosen it up, didn't work."

The difference will come with how he relates to the team when things are not going well, Johnson said. He vowed "there is nobody working harder to make sure they are physically and mentally prepared."

"I feel like I can be a better team leader," Johnson said. "This sport is so much about the people, and keeping that energy in the locker room right is key. ... It's a big puzzle with a lot of people.

"That's the part with my experience and seniority at the team that I can help shape that, which would build a better product to make my driving experience easier."

Johnson said he needs to be honest with the team about how it's doing, but also make sure he is accurate in what he tells them.

"Not overreacting to certain things," Johnson said about how he will be a better leader. "My approach has always been to understand what I'm missing, what I need, and then be vocal. I've been very careful with my position at Hendrick Motorsports and I don't want to send our engineers and teams running in a variety of different directions.

"So I'm really trying to be right when I speak up. ... This year, with all the change that's going on, we're going to make a lot of decisions and making sure we make the right ones early are going to set that arc the team goes on."

Johnson spent last season frustrated because it appeared many of the decisions didn't work.

"Through the course of last year, I turned over every stone that I knew of to help me do a better job, help me communicate with the team, using the [racing] simulator in different ways to try to drive different lines, different driving styles," Johnson said. "Unfortunately we just couldn't make anything really work for us.

"So through the offseason [I decided], first and foremost, I need to be me. A lot of things that I was open to -- it's not that I'm closed to -- but I just know that they don't serve me well."