Jimmie Johnson set to conclude 7-time NASCAR Cup series championship career at Phoenix

For the past few years, NASCAR has been in a transition period on a variety of levels. From a social standpoint, they recently banned the Confederate flag and have made strides towards diversity. From an on-track perspective, they’re developing a new car to be unleashed in 2022 in addition to various schedule changes being implemented in 2021. 

Perhaps the biggest change in NASCAR has been in its base of drivers. In the past decade we’ve seen all-time greats like Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart retire. The sport is now preparing to say goodbye to another legendary driver: Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson has just one race remaining in his seven-time Cup series championship career. Only two other drivers, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, have matched the amount of titles Johnson has accumulated. Johnson has 83 career wins and has been deadlocked with Cale Yarborough in a tie for sixth all-time since he last took home a checkered flag, in 2017 at Dover, which is the longest winless drought of his career.

“The last three years really haven’t been how I wanted them to go or expected them to go,” Johnson said in a media availability at Martinsville. “I’ve done a lot of learning and soul searching on my own and feel like I’ve had a lot of personal growth through it all. So, I’m thankful for that. There are some moments in time that I wish I could do over or handle differently, but no real regrets at the end of the day.”

Johnson’s best chance at securing a win may have just come and gone after finishing 30th at Martinsville, a track where he won nine times over 38 starts. He does have four wins at Phoenix, where the sport will wrap its season next week. However, the last one came in 2009. 

“I’m excited, honestly,” Johnson said in anticipation of his final race. “It’s been an amazing journey and one that I could have never dreamed of; and to be here at the end of it going out on my terms and when I choose to go out. With the great support of Hendrick Motorsports, Ally, friends & family, partners, and everybody involved, I’m excited. I’m happy. I’m in a great head space. I’m excited to be at one of my best tracks. The sun is out, thankfully; unlike last week and I’m excited to get going.”

2020 isn’t necessarily the season Johnson expected with COVID-19 limiting the amount of fans that could be at the tracks to send him off. Johnson himself missed the playoffs during a season where contracted the virus which caused him to miss his final Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis. 

Johnson plans to run an IndyCar schedule next season with Chip Ganassi Racing with the potential to do one-off races in NASCAR. He hopes to continue his partnership with current sponsor Ally while cultivating a new relationship with Carvana as an IndyCar sponsor. Johnson said he is most looking forward to racing at Monterey in California as well as in the Long Beach Grand Prix.  While he has not signed on for any races outside of the IndyCar schedule, Johnson is targeting the Rolex 24 at Daytona as a race he wants to continue to compete in.

‘The fact that I’ve been second twice fuels that fire a bit more,” Johnson said of the Rolex 24 ‘In these bucket lists items involve marquee events and Le Mans and the Rolex 24, those are on the top of any auto racer’s list. They’re still on mine although I’ve been in the Rolex 24 quite a few times; I just want to go back and do it. These marquee events and unique opportunities like this really sound fun and exciting to me moving forward.”

One thing remains certain about Johnson’s driving career in that he doesn’t plan to change his style of driving. Johnson has been a notoriously good guy with minimal rivals across his historic career. He has defied the phrase ‘nice guys finish last’. 

“I think if you just be yourself, ultimately you’re going to be the best that you can be,” Johnson explained. Anybody that’s trying to be nice and isn’t, is going to fall short. And it plays the same way in the other direction. And I think you’re personality and the way you treat people and handle things, not only impacts your live specifically, but it also attracts like-minded people to be around you and the teams that you drive for and the sponsors that you have. When I look at the big picture you see all these other variables where like-minded people have assembled together and we’re able to do what we do. So, it’s a saying and I think I understand why; because competition is fierce and you have to be cutthroat at times, but I think I’m one of quite a few examples that if you just be yourself, and do your thing, you can be respectful and kind to others and still succeed in a competitive sport.”

Johnson has served as a mentor to Hendrick Motorsports teammates Chase Elliott, William Byron and Alex Bowman, who is set to replace him in the No. 48 next season. He’s also universally liked and respected in the garage. No ego has come with his seven titles, but a leadership role certainly has.

This season, when Bubba Wallace was suspected of being targeted for a hate crime at Talladega, Johnson organized a group text to have drivers stand in solidarity with Wallace. While the FBI determined no hate crime was committed, Johnson’s act of leadership was recognized by all in the garage, including NASCAR president Steve Phelps. 

Not only will Johnson be remembered for his historic success on the track, but he’ll forever serve as an example to the sport’s world of how to be successful and kind at the same time. NASCAR will go on as new names like Elliott and Wallace take center stage, as will the No. 48, but no one can ever truly replace ole seven time. 

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