Like many, Jimmie Johnson was shocked by the news Stewart-Haas Racing will change manufacturers from Chevrolet to Ford, beginning with the 2017 Sprint Cup Series season.
SHR co-owner/driver Tony Stewart has driven a General Motors car in all but one of his 18 seasons in NASCAR's premier division, while teammate Kevin Harvick has driven a Chevrolet car for the entirety of his career (2001-present).
It's those long and strong ties to the carmaker Johnson figured would keep SHR aligned with Chevrolet and by extension Hendrick Motorsports (Johnson's team), which supplies cars, engines and technical support to SHR.
"With Tony's relationship with GM all these year's and Harvick's, it definitely was a surprise to me to hear that," Johnson said Friday at Atlanta Motor Speedway. "... It was certainly a shock."
The relationship between SHR and Hendrick is so deeply ingrained that the two four-car powerhouses are often referred to as one super team. SHR fields cars for Stewart, Harvick, Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch; Hendrick fields cars for Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and Chase Elliott
As Harvick pursued a career-first championship in 2014, he leaned on Johnson (a six-time series titlist) for advice on how to handle the situation. And it was SHR's access to Hendrick equipment that factored heavily in Harvick's decision to sign with the organization in 2014 after 13 seasons with Richard Childress Racing.
For the balance of 2016, Hendrick and SHR will maintain their technical alliance, with Hendrick continuing to provide SHR with winning cars before its switch to Ford. SHR will begin constructing its own chassis next season.
"We have contracts in place with Stewart-Haas Racing that Hendrick has to honor and will honor and honor with integrity, the way that we always do," Johnson said. "We have a lot of employees whose jobs count on that and rely on that. Nothing is different this year."
What team owner Rick Hendrick will do after this season has not been determined yet, Johnson said. The goal is to find an organization capable of filling SHR's position, allowing Hendrick to continue building the same number of engines without having to downsize its personnel.
Hendrick also supplies Cup engines to Chip Ganassi Racing and HScott Motorsports.
"Fortunately, we have a year to figure out if we want to service some other teams and provide engines and chassis or how we handle it," Johnson said. "I know Rick's goal is to keep the staff where it is. That gets me excited because if we maintain the staff I think we will be able to develop that much more cool stuff for our race cars.
"It's going to be tough to figure out how to fund it -- there is no way around that. But I think this could be and will be really good for Hendrick Motorsports in the long run."
Despite SHR's exodus to Ford, Johnson believes Hendrick will benefit long-term.
"Giving Rick Hendrick 12 months to figure out how to make it work is the exciting part," Johnson said. "I feel like Hendrick Motorsports is going to be stronger yet come 2017."