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Jimmie Johnson pulled his legs away from the pedals. He curled up in his seat, but also tried to stay loose. There was nothing he could do to stop the car as it headed straight at a concrete wall.
He was 24-years-old, running in his first full-time NASCAR Xfinity Series season (then known as the Busch Series) and he’d had that car in the top-10 at Watkins Glen International. He’d just pitted; his crew was abuzz about the chance to have a strong finish — maybe even a win.
Then he pushed his foot onto the brake. Nothing. Foot to the floor. Still nothing.
Instead of rounding the first turn, Johnson’s No. 92 Chevrolet shot off the track. It skittered across the grass before catching air over a sand trap. He had nanoseconds to consider what he might do next. His brain cycled.
Do I try to make the turn?! How do I get this thing stopped?
This was back in 2000. He was relatively new to stock cars but not to racing — or wrecking. He knew there were no good answers. So he braced for that concrete barrier.
“That experience and one other are the only two moments where I just felt like the outcome was not good,” Johnson recalled. “I just kind of gave up in the car and just went limp. I knew it was going to be really, really bad, and potentially, the worst. …
“I thought it was it.”
His car slammed into the wall, sending out a sickening thump. Styrofoam shot into the air.
He’d been wrong. It wasn’t concrete.
Still, everyone stopped.
“It absolutely terrified me,” said Randy Herzog, one of the car’s owners. “When that barrier blew up, it looked like an explosion, and my heart almost stopped when I saw it.”
Johnson’s crew chief, Tony Liberati, didn’t have to wait long. Johnson’s voice burst into his ears, saying he was OK. But onlookers thought the worst.
“It was a miracle,” said NBC Sports reporter Dave Burns, a pit reporter for ESPN at the time.
“There are certain crashes, especially when you’re near them, that they just take the air out of you, and you can hear the crowd just go, ‘Ohhh!’ and you know that what you’ve seen could be really bad. When I saw this one, I was not sure we were going to see him alive, honestly.”
Johnson didn’t just survive the spectacular wreck. He extricated himself from the car and hopped onto the roof. Triumphant. Alive.
He threw both hands over his head in celebration. Fans in the stands rejoiced with him. Broadcasters called him a “24-year-old lion.” The video became legendary. To this day, some fans on Reddit speculate that wreck is what gave Johnson his “Superman” powers.
“From where I was seated, I had my own journey of fear and thinking it was over, and I was so happy to be alive,” Johnson said in a recent interview with For The Win. “As I was climbing out of the car, the fans were having their moment as well. … They all jumped to their feet, and we’re jumping up and down. And I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m with you!’”
Other than some bruises and stiffness in his neck and back, Johnson was fine.
NASCAR fans know this wreck. It’s replayed often, especially when NASCAR takes what’s usually an annual trip to Watkins Glen in New York. But for those close to Johnson, then and now, they see clues about the extraordinary racer and person Johnson ultimately became in the seconds between that horrifying crash and unexpected celebration.
A pro with a glass-half-full outlook. An anomaly. Fearless. Joyful, genuine, extreme.
“Him hopping up on top of the car — that was just an awesome display of who Jimmie is and the reality of what he is,” said Chad Knaus, Johnson’s longtime crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports. “He is still that person at heart.”
“I feel like that moment was just very much his personality — just unafraid,” teammate Chase Elliott said about replays of the 20-year-old wreck. (He was four in 2000.)
Maybe that almost-tragic Watkins Glen crash was, in a way, prophetic, as Burns speculated: “It was the beginning of a series of fortunate events in Jimmie’s life that pointed to, for whatever reason, fate was going to treat him well in the sport of auto racing.”
“Well” may be an understatement.
Two decades, a record-tying seven championships and 83 wins later, 45-year-old Johnson is on the brink of running his final NASCAR race — at least as a full-time driver. He’ll turn his final laps Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, as a living legend who, barring an unexpected victory, will finish No. 6 on the all-time wins list, tied with Cale Yarborough and sandwiched between Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Looking back, Johnson’s had plenty of pivotal career moments with both obvious and immeasurable effects. Perhaps that 2000 crash at Watkins Glen was one of them.
“The irony in all that: I don’t think many people knew who I was,” Johnson said. “Climbing on the roof and standing on top of the car, I know that got Jeff Gordon’s attention, and he started paying attention a lot more to me. So, a near death experience that also led to a life-changing experience kind of wrapped up into all those other details.”
Those other details include Herzog Motorsports losing its sponsorship, Johnson stalking Gordon — his eventual teammate — later that summer in search of advice and Hendrick Motorsports adding a fourth car to its fleet — all leading him to the vehicle he made iconic, the No. 48 Chevrolet.
The winning combination
The young man on that roof didn’t harbor a dream of winning seven championships. He wasn’t aiming to tie a mark set by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. He wouldn’t have imagined a career like that.
What he dared to hope for was a good, solid run. One that would last. Because until that point, he said, he’d felt like he was always “on thin ice” — waiting for his latest racing opportunity to vanish. He hadn’t come from money and wasn’t a legacy in NASCAR. He was just a kid from El Cajon, California.
That fresh-faced, ebullient version of Johnson wasn’t fantasizing about fame. He didn’t hope to be the GOAT. He just wanted to make race-car driving his job.
“I could have never dreamed this big,” Johnson said recently. “And when I look back at my childhood and my reality, like, my parents could afford dirt bikes, and I raced motocross until they couldn’t afford that anymore. And it took a few years to get an opportunity to race, something with four wheels. … I honestly made it through by others believing in me, in car owners believing in me.”
Johnson is quick to credit others, especially 49-year-old Knaus. He knows how important having the right crew chief turned out to be. It would be easy to say that the magic Johnson and Knaus created over the years was meticulously conjured during tireless days at the shop — a grueling process that delivered a championship in 2006 after four years of impressive but ultimately disappointing results. And that’s true.
It’s just not the whole story. You’d have to go back to one of their first meetings for that: A lunch with Johnson, Knaus and Hendrick Motorsports executives, when the rookie driver met his slightly more-seasoned crew chief, and they “hit it off right away,” Knaus said.
“I knew pretty quickly that this guy was somebody I could connect with and speak to openly and freely,” Knaus said. “And we had a lot of commonalities from our background.”
Including their mediocre golf games.
“As we were breaking up for the day,” Knaus continued, “Jimmie said, ‘Do you play golf?’ And I said, ‘I play, I don’t play well at all.’ And he said, ‘Well, good. Me either.’ “
And the next day, the pair met up at a golf course near Hendrick’s shop and got in what Knaus called a “pretty ugly” practice at the driving range.
“[Johnson] said, ‘Man, what do you say we just get a six pack and just go go play some golf and see what happens?’” Knaus continued. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, man, here we go.’ And honestly, that was where it all started.”
“That six pack grew into a couple by the end of 18 holes,” Johnson said. Instead of trying to bond in an uncomfortable cubicle at Hendrick Motorsports, they found friendship and chemistry.
Starting with that lunch and boozy golf outing, Johnson and Knaus spent the winter preparing for their debut together in the 2002 season. They did some testing, and Knaus said he was “amazed” at the feedback Johnson provided, considering his limited experience in a Cup car. Together, they worked plenty, but Johnson said their foundation of trust really began developing over games of horseshoe in his backyard, by going out for dinners and just hanging out and cracking a few beers.
Not that the relationship would unfurl so smoothly over the course of their unparalleled dominance. Quite the opposite: Though they won 18 races through their first four years, they chaffed over what they viewed as missed opportunities to win championships. Their trust deteriorated over the course of the 2005 season, and the tension led to a now-famous “milk-and-cookies” meeting with team owner Rick Hendrick, who insisted if they wanted to win, they needed to stop acting like children and work through their issues.
And that meeting ultimately led to an unprecedented five consecutive championships.
Johnson opened the 2006 season winning the biggest race in NASCAR: The Daytona 500. It was the first of five victories that year, culminating in his first NASCAR Cup Series championship at 31. Validation after multiple missed title opportunities.
“Very fortunate to be able to come out in 2006 and put all the pieces together and get that first one, which was just a magical thing,” Knaus said.
Seven the hard way
Johnson’s seventh championship came when he was 41-years-old, seemingly well past his prime and, he swears, with a passenger in the car with him for the final laps.
“The seventh in ‘16, that was probably the most emotional and spiritual experience that I’ve really ever had professionally,” Johnson explained.
Even those closest to him, who’d been a part of his streak, did not believe it would end the way it did.
“… I feel like our seventh one that we did win,” Knaus said, “we probably shouldn’t have, in all reality.”
Homestead-Miami Speedway — where he had never won — from the rear of the field because the team made an unapproved adjustment to the car.
And for much of the race, it looked like Carl Edwards’ championship to lose — until he wrecked late after blocking fellow contender Joey Logano. Johnson was nearly collected, too. Even Rick Hendrick admits he didn’t think the 48 team had a chance.
“I didn’t think we were really going to be in it, the way we were running,” the team owner said at Johnson’s retirement press conference last year. “It was unbelievable.”
Johnson didn’t have the fastest car and didn’t even lead the race until the final three laps when he exploded off the pivotal last restart with Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson — two drivers who weren’t eligible to win the championship — chasing him down for the checkered flag.
With the title all but won, Johnson found himself emotional on the final laps.
“Literally when I heard ‘clear’ from [spotter] Earl [Barban] off of Turn 2 coming to get the white flag, there was a sense of Ricky being in that race car with me,” Johnson recalled.
Ricky Hendrick was one of 10 people killed in 2004 when a team plane crashed on its way to Martinsville Speedway for a race Johnson ultimately won. Rick Hendrick lost his son and his brother, among other family members and friends.
Johnson was only a few years older than Ricky. The two were good friends. And barreling to the checkered flag, Johnson felt Ricky’s presence pushing him toward his 80th career victory.
“I’ll go to my grave saying he was there,” Johnson said. “It was just crazy intense what I experienced and felt that evening. … That whole set of circumstances is just wild.”
Disappointing end becomes new beginning
Johnson hasn’t been to victory lane since June 4, 2017 at Dover International Speedway, and he hasn’t finished higher than third over the subsequent three years. The 2018 season marked his first full-time Cup season without a win. In 2019, he missed the playoffs for the first time since they were established in 2004. He didn’t make it in 2020, either.
He split with Knaus after the 2018 season, hoping for a spark that never came.
Johnson is insistent his subpar results aren’t what pushed him toward retirement. He described his NASCAR exit as “bittersweet,” but he’s thankful to have the ability to choose his retirement date — a gift not offered to many athletes and certainly not many NASCAR drivers.
“I’ve had a rough three years here,” Johnson said. “But I feel like since I’ve been down and out so many times, those moments have taught me or reminded me about why I race and why I’m out there. … That’s for the experience. It’s not about being famous or being the greatest or any of that. I’ve been very fortunate to accomplish some of that my Cup career, but that’s never what it’s been about.”
But victory lane continues to elude Johnson and the No. 48 team, aside from winning The 2019 Clash, an exhibition event held in February before the season-opening Daytona 500. And if June of 2017 at Dover ends up being the final checkered flag of his career, Johnson said he’ll have no choice but to accept that.
He’s happy and at peace with his decision to step away from full-time NASCAR. He has no regrets, he said, though a couple race do-overs would be nice. But he’s eager for a new task, new experiences. An adrenaline junkie, he’s embracing change and the seemingly infinite list of challenges offered up to a race car driver in his 40s switching disciplines.
Transitioning to the IndyCar Series — the open-wheeled style of racing Johnson initially dreamed of competing in while growing up — he’ll run 13 road and street course races in 2021. And, if all goes well, he hasn’t ruled out the idea of attempting the Indianapolis 500 in 2022.
“I find myself back to square one as a 45-year-old rookie with the insecurities of learning a new vehicle, new tracks, new people, just starting all over again,” Johnson said. “So once again, here I am in that uncomfortable position of learning and starting over, but I have learned to embrace that like that.”
Role model, nice guy, racing legend
William Byron — at 22, the youngest driver for Hendrick Motorsports — still remembers the night about a decade ago when he went trick-or-treating at Johnson’s house. He’d brought along a pillow case to hold his candy; he asked his idol to sign it.
The two are close now, because Knaus is Byron’s crew chief — though, after the 2020 season, Knaus is leaving the pit box to become Hendrick’s VP of competition. Though he was a toddler when it happened, Byron has seen the video of Johnson’s crash at Watkins Glen. He says it’s one of the worst impacts, to this day, he’s ever watched.
Having had the opportunity to interact with Johnson, though, Byron also said he can so clearly see the person Johnson is now in that 24-year-old on the roof of his wrecked car celebrating a miracle.
“He’s just a badass,” Byron said. “He has such a nonchalant personality but can be so aggressive. So it’s funny how that works out, how he has one personality racing the car and has one when he gets out of it.”
Speak to almost anyone in NASCAR about Johnson’s legacy, and they’ll focus on the person out of the car. In a sport that fosters rivalries and highlights grudges, Johnson has an impeccable reputation.
Hendrick last year described him as the “perfect driver,” one who elevates those around him while raising the standard of success for the organization. Teammate Alex Bowman, who will replace Johnson in the No. 48 car next season, called him the “best role model possible” because of how well he treats others.
“He’s always been a phenomenal teammate, other than, you know, frustrating you because he beat you a lot,” joked Gordon, a four-time NASCAR champion who’s now a Hendrick executive. “Jimmie was just the epitome of what you would want out of a teammate.”
Starting with his openness and transparency. He’d readily share data and information with his teammates, who knew they could trust him, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. If he found a technique that made him faster, he’d pass it along with the hope it’d increase their speed too.
Even after so much success, Johnson’s unrelenting work ethic never wavered, and he doesn’t carry himself like someone who rewrote NASCAR’s history books, Earnhardt explained. Johnson welcomed him to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008 and helped him through a few down years.
“He’s extremely supportive about what you’re trying to accomplish — extremely supportive,” Dale Jr. said.
“And when I started to win races, Jimmie would be the first one in victory Lane to celebrate or shake my hand or be just as happy, as if he won the race himself. So he was just such a great teammate. Never one time did it feel competitive or did he look down on any of his teammates. Never once.”
Johnson isn’t without fault. He can be too daring, sometimes when the stakes are incredibly high, like when he wrecked himself and Martin Truex Jr. on the last lap of the 2018 playoff race on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval.
“He’s gonna race the you-know-what out of you, but at the same time, it’s hard to get mad at him,” Truex said. “I was mad as hell at him for like 20 minutes. And then we started talking, and I’m like, ‘I can’t be mad at you.’ …
“Really, honestly, truly one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet,” Truex continued. “He’s real, and you think of a guy that’s won as much as he has, and he’s still super down to earth and just as normal as he was when I met him a long time ago.”
Johnson has 18 years on Hendrick’s next-oldest driver, 27-year-old Bowman, so he’s embraced the role of Team Dad, offering on- and off-track wisdom to the “kids” in the shop. “A leader in all situations,” Bowman said — but one who’s eager for others’ input.
“He’s just super humble,” Bowman said. “He has more success than anybody else that’s currently racing in the Cup Series, but he is the most open, honest, easy-to-talk-to person in the garage. …
“And, obviously, taking over the 48 [car next season], I’m gonna continue to lean on him whether he likes it or not.”
For his part, Johnson says he doesn’t really care if he’s remembered for being unafraid or a fierce competitor or a relentless student. He simply hopes, by now, that he’s earned the industry’s respect.
“It’s all about relationships and experiences,” Johnson said. “In my heart, I want to be respected by my peers. And I’ve heard stories of other big names in our sport and how they were remembered. And I hope that I’m one of the good guys that was able to have success in our sport and that that lives on and inspires others.”
As long as that’s how NASCAR history remembers him, the trophies and rings are just memories. He stashes many of them away with other memorabilia he’s kept. Like that car that cradled him in 2000 at Watkins Glen, then gave him a platform from which he could express his gratitude.
And some of that styrofoam — Johnson bought $10 worth from someone who had retrieved it and was selling it the following year — that softened his blow.
He’d been so sure it was concrete. He’d been so sure it was the end. But in so many ways, it was the beginning.