The End Of An Era
By Bob Pockrass
To understand how Jimmie Johnson might approach racing after his full-time NASCAR Cup Series career comes to close in November, a moment from his first championship celebration might give a clue.
In 2006, a 29-year-old Johnson zig-zagged from one media interview to the next in New York City, when his staff thought they should stop and take a photo at the corner of 48th Street and 1st Avenue. When they got there, Johnson felt weird. It didn’t seem right standing at the bottom of the pole and the street signs several feet in the air.
So Johnson had an idea. And before anyone could tell him he couldn’t, he started climbing the pole so they could take the photos with the street signs right above his head.
The people who knew Johnson weren’t surprised, just NASCAR security got fidgety that the city cops might not forgive some California kid climbing a street pole. In typical Johnson fashion, the move was performed quickly and with no hiccups.
Johnson would take several more similar photos in the future, as he rattled off five consecutive championships and then added a sixth and seventh in a career that has featured 83 victories.
He did it in the only way he knew how: sneaky fast with a rapid climb. He saw an opportunity and he took it. And that’s what he’ll do after 2020. He will take advantage of the opportunities that come his way.
While Johnson has thrived on spur-of-the-moment resolutions to issues on and off the track, there are no plans for a spur-of-the-moment change-of-heart to return to the NASCAR Cup Series full-time after this season.
Johnson has 18 races left in his full-time NASCAR Cup Series career. Anyone who holds out any hope of a return is just dreaming. Prior to the NASCAR Cup Series race Sunday, the Hendrick Motorsports driver told FoxSports.com that he remains content with the decision he made in November – that 2020 would be his final full season.
"I’ve really never been driven by statistics," Johnson said. "And I had this mind-opening experience of like, ‘Holy s---, I can really do whatever I want to. So why not?
"You build some momentum in that line of thought, all my heroes growing up, very few raced for championship points. They all hit the big, marquee events. Why couldn’t I do that? Why couldn’t I dream up a 15-race schedule that’s the most badass schedule that would make every driver envious and jealous?
"Why don’t I go do that? Is it money? I’m good there. Is it stats? I’m good there, too. Why not chase this dream situation? That’s where I sit."
Some thought the COVID-19 interrupted season would spur him to go another year, and he left the door open for any second thoughts a couple of months ago. But those second thoughts never really came.
Even amid a season shut down for 10 weeks, followed by Johnson missing a race because he had tested positive for COVID-19, he knew this would be his final full go-around.
"I’ve had so much good fortune come my way, what happened to me last fall is I realized I could dream up pretty much any scenario I want and I can go do it," Johnson said. "Who has that chance in life? I’m in such a fortunate situation. Our kids are young. We have the ability to be fluid and move and travel and experience.
"Why wouldn’t I? Of course, I want eight championships. Of course, I want 84 wins. Of course I want these other things. But at some point, I’m like, ‘Man, I have such an opportunity to experience life.’ That’s really what this is about."
Sure, Johnson feels sorry that fans who wanted to see him race one more time might not get to do so. But if your heart isn’t into doing this full-time, there’s no way to do it. It’s not fair to the team if a driver just isn’t into it for 40 weeks during the year.
"Everything that led to me to making that decision last fall, what happens this year doesn’t change that," Johnson said. "I’ve come over that hurdle. I’ve cleared that mark. And this is the last year.
"And knowing I’m not done racing helps me. I’m not sure how my fans feel and I know the fans probably want me to come around another year at Cup. I’m still going to be racing at a high level next year, and hopefully the fans can find a way to come check me out there."
Before anyone says it, the 44-year-old Johnson doesn’t seem as if he is mailing it in. There is never any of that with Johnson, whose competitive juices still have him working on fitness and the best way to race a car. Johnson has just as much enthusiasm for the next 18 races as he has for what awaits him in 2021 and beyond.
"My heart is still about winning races," Johnson said. "We have some distance to make up and we’re working hard on it. I don’t think we’re in our best form yet. We started the year really good and after the lockdown, we came back and seemed to be a little bit off and now we’re trying to get back to that early season form we had as a company.
"As I ride all these emotions and missing a race and where that’s put me in points, it’s back to the basics, where it’s been all year, which is winning races."
Don’t take that to mean that Johnson is miserable when he loses. He would train with a running group in Charlotte, and if you wanted to talk to him about his running prowess, he would point to someone else in the group who had just completed an ultra marathon or some feat that Johnson found amazing. He has competed in many fitness events and been happy with his finish, even though others finished better.
That attitude is how he got to the NASCAR Cup Series. Sure, he had some success in the lower ranks, but no one pointed at Johnson when he raced in NASCAR’s ladder series and declared him as the next 7-time champion.
"When I go back to motocross where it’s all about the rider, depending on my age versus the competitors, I had good years and bad years and I developed an opinion then that if I left the track knowing I did my best, that was important to me," Johnson said.
"It was not necessarily where I finished on track. As I climbed the ladder and moved so quickly through divisions, I had to find something to keep me sane without having this overwhelming success that many other guys around me did. That mindset kept me in-check."
He knows all the pieces need to be right, which he had early in his career. A win this year, though, would help some with Johnson’s legacy. It would mean he won a race without Chad Knaus as his crew chief. It also would show he was winning up until the end, rather than end his full-time career with a 130-race winless streak.
It would maybe help quiet some of the doubters and the many critics who felt it was Knaus, not Johnson, that made Johnson great.
But Johnson wants to win for his team, now led by Cliff Daniels.
"It would be much more about giving Cliff his first win," Johnson said. "I couldn’t give a s--- what people have to say anymore. I’ve been doing this way too many years.
"If somebody doesn’t like you, they’re not going to like you. I gave up on that battle a long time ago."
And there’s one more reason Johnson wants to win. He knows how much it would mean to his family.
"I have so much support from my wife and kids and to hear their prayers at night for daddy to win the race or we’re sitting down at dinner saying a prayer and I hear it, that stuff hits me deep," Johnson said.
"It gives me so much motivation. I don’t care about a keyboard warrior sitting in his mom’s basement."
The thing that has been strange about Johnson is it seems he has let the haters get to him occasionally. When he said those things earlier in his career, it didn’t seem like he meant it. The guy has earned millions of dollars and seven Cup championship trophies. That’s always the last laugh.
But Johnson has done it in such a nice way, he probably feels he deserves love. He has made everything in his career look too easy. He rarely had to dump anyone to make the pass – he was good enough to just drive by them.
Johnson couldn’t always accept why people rooted against him and genuinely disliked him.
"That was a journey, there’s no way around it," Johnson said about dealing with criticsm. "My opportunities in my career came about because people liked me. People wanted to see me do well. People wanted to help me. People helped create opportunities.
"To be early in my Cup career and have the masses kind of against me and didn’t like me, that took a while to digest and get through, there’s no doubt."
It has been a heck of a journey, one that Johnson talks about more as closing another chapter than an entire book. He doesn’t want the grind but loves holding the steering wheel and loves to be challenged. He has a list of cars he wants to race, personal fitness goals, vacations, and events he wants to attend.
"Just inside, I’m ready for something new and something different on top of cutting my schedule way back," Johnson said. "There’s just something there. Maybe I will reinvent myself and do something completely different in racing, I don’t know.
"But I do know it is time for change. Not necessarily time to stop driving. But it’s time for change."