- Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
- 2-time Sports Emmy winner
- 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year
“This was definitely not how this was supposed to go down.”
The greatest American racer of his generation is on the phone. Jimmie Johnson is driving home from the racetrack and he is 100 percent correct. This is not how this was supposed to go down. Not this week. Not this year. Hell, not even the past 19 years. None of it. And yet here he is. In a car the rest of us can’t afford, headed home to see his wife, the former model-turned-art curator, and their two daughters. A life paid for via unforeseen success and dreams that were entirely too big to consider for a pickup truck racer who once lived in a trailer park with his two brothers, truck-driving dad and school bus-driving mom.
“Racing for a living, flying all over the world, championships and Daytona 500 trophies,” he lists, laughing. “Just so you know, that’s not really the typical El Cajon [California] mindset growing up. That’s why there’s a part of me that still can’t believe it’s all happened the way that it has.”
Sometimes that all catches up with a man, and today is one of those days. Today, the 45-year-old is worn out and for a not-short list of reasons. The immediate cause for his exhaustion? He’s not driving home from some famous superspeedway. No, he has just logged three straight hours behind the wheel at a Charlotte karting facility to “work out my IndyCar muscles so my damn head doesn’t fall off.” He is speaking of his neck and shoulders, with his helmeted noggin flopping around exposed in the air. This winter he’ll be testing with Chip Ganassi Racing in preparation for his IndyCar Series debut in March 2021, with an eye on his first Indy 500 start, whether that be in 2021 or ’22 (he wants to gauge his comfort level on ovals first).
“As a racer, you embrace the grind. You have to have it,” he says. “But dude, I’m tired. I still need the grind. I just need to change my grind.”
The longest-range cause of his fatigue also is the most obvious on that long list of reasons. It’s 2020, man. Johnson is running out of gas as he finally nears the finish line of this strangest of years, the checkered flag at the end of Sunday’s 316-lapper at Phoenix Raceway. This calendar of chaos has just so happened to coincide with the end of his NASCAR Cup Series career. Phoenix is the final race remaining in his final full-time season, a year altered and overshadowed by a pandemic to the point that it has denied him his well-earned career victory lap and ultimately cost him a spot in the NASCAR playoffs. There will be four men racing for a title Sunday and he isn’t one of them. He hasn’t been one of them since 2016, when he won the season finale and clinched his seventh Cup title.
In one breath, he is quick to say he hasn’t been overly reflective during this final season. But after his next breath, a deep one, he adds, “I don’t think I am one to linger on what-ifs because my whole life has been about the next thing, the next lap, the next race, the next championship, the next ride. But I’m not being completely honest with you if I say that I’ve not spent some time, really a lot of time, dissecting this season. Not being sentimental but thinking back to those moments when I personally could have done something different to ensure that we would be in the running for a championship right now.”
He goes back to the week of July 4, when a positive COVID-19 test kept him home, forced to miss what should have been his final Brickyard 400. It was one of the earliest headline-making positives, back when testing was still much more difficult to come by. He still can’t explain the result except to say, “Whatever it was that happened with that.”
But that weekend while the race roared along on television, he paced around his house relentlessly, so much so that wife, Chandra, asked, “Why are you so torn up?” She couldn’t understand why it was eating so badly at her normally even-keeled husband.
Only eight weeks later, Johnson missed the 16-team NASCAR playoffs cutoff by a scant six points. When he arrived at their second home in Colorado in the middle of the night the girls were asleep, but Chandra was sitting in the kitchen, tears streaking down her face. She was staring at an empty wine bottle. He asked her what was wrong. She said, “I can’t believe you missed it by only six points!” Johnson comforted his wife of nearly 16 years. “I just held her hand and told her that now she was where I had been two months earlier.”
Now the Johnsons are firmly in the here and now. His relief is so clear when he reveals that NASCAR will waive the strict driver-isolation regulations employed since its return in mid-May to allow Chandra and their daughters to be at Phoenix this weekend. It’s the girls — Genevieve, 10, and Lydia, 7 — whom Johnson has missed the most during what was supposed to have been a yearlong celebration of his career.
On March 1, the prerace ceremonies at Auto Club Speedway provided a peek into what the “farewell tour” was going to be. His home track plastered his image all over the grounds, had him lead a five-wide salute pace lap and employed his old desert rat motocross friend Ricky Johnson to drive the pace car. The entire family, including his parents, was there. It was perfect. Two weeks later, the world shut down. When NASCAR returned in mid-May, it was with one-day shows and only essential team personnel were allowed at the racetrack. Johnson spent his prerace nights alone in his motor coach, FaceTiming with the family.
“The visual that I had going into 2020 was a celebration with my family, one last lap around the NASCAR circuit with them. It’s really been my daughters who have steered the nostalgia part of this year. The questions they have asked about my career, from a picture they’ve seen or something they’ve heard, that’s the part I have enjoyed, is learning what they find interesting about what their dad has done.
“Again, this was not how this was supposed to have gone down.”
As for the other stuff, the grandstand renamings, fan flipcard tributes and retirement rocking chair gifts during driver introductions, everything that Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace and Johnson’s mentor, Jeff Gordon, experienced during their final seasons?
“It’s a little hard to say that you feel robbed of being celebrated and having your ass kissed for a year, because that’s not me,” he says, rolling his eyes. “But I have felt bad for my die-hard fans. There’s a bitter taste in their mouth about all of this, not being at the track to see me off.”
He’s talking about the supporters who have been with him since the beginning, when he was seemingly plucked out of thin air by Gordon to drive a new car co-owned by Gordon and Rick Hendrick. Johnson was a nobody out of nowhere, an off-road racer who had caught the attention of Chevrolet, spent some time in ASA and was most famous for a crash in an Xfinity (then Busch) Series race that literally tore down the Turn 1 retaining wall at Watkins Glen. Those fans have ridden with Johnson from then until now, through the championship period when others accused him of ruining the sport and even through this frustrating 3½-season winless drought. They will no doubt stick with him wherever he goes next, beginning with a likely Rolex 24 ride in January and his inaugural IndyCar effort.
He also has talked with other series around the world, including the London-based World Endurance Championship, the 24 Hours of LeMans and one day a return to his desert roots in Baja. He plans on going full old-school Parnelli Jones, racing every machine he can everywhere they will allow him. And they will allow him pretty much anywhere he chooses to go.
“But don’t take all of that for a distraction,” Johnson is quick to add. “I’ve got one more chance to add a little something to my NASCAR résumé first.”
That résumé, written over 685 races, is second to none in the 72-year history of stock car racing’s top series. Johnson’s 83 Cup wins trail only five men and four of those had more starts, three of them topping his green flag total by 120 or more. His seven championships are equaled only by the two racers who have always been the lone combatants in the ring of the “Who is the best ever?” debate, Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Today’s racers agree that the trio’s shared record of a septuplet of Cups is not likely to matched again. Johnson’s five consecutive titles from 2006-10 runs door-to-door with Petty’s career 200 wins as NASCAR’s most unbreakable marks.
Those achievements are even more remarkable when placed within the context of the NASCAR era in which they happened. Johnson’s seven titles were earned via three different points systems and four variations on the Chase/Playoff postseason format. There were so many alterations made to the system during his five-year title run that NASCAR was accused of trying to “Jimmie proof” the sport. He also won his titles and races in wildly different race cars, beginning his career in the so-called Generation 4 car, the ever-changing “Twisted Sister” bodies that were shaped by wind tunnels to the point that they looked wrecked before they’d even raced, and passing through the Gen 5 “Car of Tomorrow” shoeboxes and into today’s Gen 6 that seems to land somewhere in between those other two.
He knew Earnhardt. He denied Gordon a chance to add another Cup Series title after 2001. He battled with fellow future NASCAR Hall of Famers ranging from Tony Stewart and Mark Martin to Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, and he beat them all. He won races on 20 different racetracks, including a record 11 wins at Dover, eight at Charlotte, seven at Texas, six at Auto Club and four at Las Vegas. He has won two Daytona 500s, four Brickyard 400s, four Coca-Cola 600s, two Southern 500s and four All-Star races.
It’s not a question of whether Johnson is on stock car racing’s Mount Rushmore. There’s only a question about of which space to put his head.
Right now, with Phoenix looming, his head is in the right space. He’s laughing about that wreck at Watkins Glen in 2000. He gets downright cerebral talking about his former crew chief, Chad Knaus, and their weekly battles over the radio, the arguments that he says ultimately pushed him to greatness. (“There has to be someone willing to piss everyone off. I’m not good at that. Chad is great at it.”) He is lamenting missed chances at Darlington and other places earlier this season, but he beams when talking about his “elder mentor” role with William Byron, Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott at Hendrick Motorsports. His voice crackles with excitement when he says the first Indianapolis 500 he will have ever attended will hopefully be as a member of the 33-car starting grid.
The greatest driver of his generation, with one eye in the rearview mirror and one eye pointed toward the horizon, has no intention of slowing down.
“My entire life has always been about the experience. All I ever wanted to do was win one race. After I did that, I had to adjust my goals. Now I am adjusting them all the time. I have had opportunities that I never dreamed of. I have a lot more of those opportunities coming. I don’t know where all it will take me, where it will take my family, but that’s the exciting part.”
Johnson pauses. He seems to be searching for another set of words, so as not to keep repeating himself. But his story is what it is, and there is always that one description that seems to fit perfectly.
“This was definitely not how this was supposed to go down.”
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