Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – CONCORD, NC – Jimmie Johnson’s two young daughters Genevieve, 9, and Lydia, 7, introduced their father and his team owner Rick Hendrick to a sizable audience of Hendrick Motorsports teammates, Johnson’s family and friends and the motorsports media gathered outside Charlotte, N.C. Thursday afternoon.
His children’s involvement in this important event was a fitting life-bridge for Johnson’s retirement press conference.
The seven-time NASCAR Cup champion announced Wednesday that the 2020 season will be his last fulltime competitive run in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. His time afterward will instead be focused on his young daughters, his family – with the opportunity he’s created to enjoy a well-lived, duly-celebrated life as a sports legend and genuinely good guy.
And if a racing opportunity comes up here or there that he can’t pass up, well Johnson conceded he would definitely be game.
Johnson, 43, took the stage Thursday dressed in a suit, sitting alongside the only Cup team owner he’s ever had, in Hendrick. The tone of the media opportunity was as much pride in what he’s accomplished both on and off the track as it was setting expectations for his final season.
That part is easy. It’s never wavered.
“Next year is not a ‘mail it in’ year,” Johnson said. “We’re going to win races and contend for a championship.”
After the 2020 finale in Phoenix, however, the driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet conceded, “I feel like I need to take a deep breath.”
He can expect the exhale to be good and satisfactory. Johnson’s personality has always been easy-going and he appeared every bit content with this huge career decision. He has turned in a masterful career.
Johnson’s 83 Cup Series victories are most among active drivers and sixth all-time – only one trophy behind Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip on the all-time wins list. His seven series championships tie an all-time best mark set by NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt.
In fact, Johnson earned his titles in a time of ever-evolving championship formats that sometimes felt as if they were designed to slow his dominance. However, even that failed to affect his excellence. And those five consecutive Cup trophies he earned from 2006-10 is a mark of success unequalled by anyone in the sport.
And yet for all the trophy-hoists and championship celebrations, Johnson has always remained that humble, friendly ‘good guy’ from El Cajon, Calif. – a popular kid in his small hometown outside San Diego whose talent and focus has now made him one of his sport’s absolute greatest competitors.
And he’s coupled that with a devotion to helping others – from building homes in his hometown to granting money to schools across the country.
His ‘good guy’ exterior – the genuine smile, fun personality and caring heart – has nicely belied the will and drive to succeed above all others. To be one of his sport’s historical markers. To win.
Johnson said he has been contemplating his decision to step away for months, but only told Hendrick three weeks ago. He conceded he did discuss retirement with a few other longtime NASCAR Hall of Famers such as Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin. And, of course, he spoke with his good friend, newly inducted NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon, who influenced Hendrick to hire Johnson back in 2002 and then raced his fellow Californian door-to-door for titles throughout the last two decades.
Johnson smiled as he recalled telling his young daughters his big news.
“Lydia was eating pancakes at the time and just asked me to pass the butter,” Johnson laughed.
His older daughter, he said, has been “processing it – she just wants dad to be happy.”
“It’s been interesting because I had worked through my head space and so I’m a little further down the road and so excited about where I am today,” Johnson said. “I’m really excited and just ready to get 2020 started. We’re going to have a good time.”
He continued, “When I look back on the years I’ve had so far in NASCAR, I fall back to the experiences and the people. Those are the memories that come to mind not holding a trophy in Victory Lane or being on stage in [past championship banquets] Las Vegas. It’s the people.”
His longtime team owner Rick Hendrick had heartfelt difficulty trying to recall just one single special competitive moment with Johnson – a win or a championship.
“He’s represented this sport as a true champion,” Hendrick said. “You never had to make any excuses for Jimmie Johnson. He was always on his mark. He never embarrassed anybody and he is just a role model for kids and a role model for drivers. And an athlete I don’t see in any kind of sport, that much committed to his job and to his family.
“Everybody knows he’s a special guy and on top of that he’s one of the very greatest that’s ever driven a [NASCAR] car. So I’m just very blessed that I could have a guy like that. Thank you Jeff [Gordon] for pushing him along to win all the races and all the championships for us.”
Throughout his time taking questions Thursday, Johnson reiterated that he is not ‘retiring’. He said he was excited about opportunities to try different series, mentioning his off-road background and smiling as he noted that even the World of Outlaws had reached out via social media yesterday with an open invitation.
As the expected questions arose asking Johnson to recall his greatest win or most sentimental championship, fans may be surprised to know that he considers his very first victory – in 2002 at Fontana, Calif. in his 13th start as a Hendrick full-timer – to be most special.
He didn’t even hesitate.
“For me I go to the first, my dream was to be a Cup driver and to win a race, that was the top for me, so to be able to do that in my home track in my 13th start, that was a very, very special moment,” Johnson said.
Having just made his decision public this week, Johnson conceded it was still early to think about his life without the daily grind of a 38-week racing schedule, much less process his place in racing history.
But there was an unmistakable theme in Johnson’s heartfelt answers Thursday. And for as competitive as Johnson is, as successful as he is, it was striking that Johnson’s most fond memories are as much about the people he’s celebrated with as the thrilling accomplishments he’s celebrated.
“Legacy-wise, I feel that I’m a people person and I’ve built a lot of extremely meaningful relationships in this industry and this garage area,” Johnson said. “Go back to my younger years and the teams I’ve raced with, there’s always been that feeling there, a friendship, a bond and respect. So ultimately, it’s that respect and being one of the good guys out there on the track.
“When I look back at my 18 years so far, my mind goes to those memories and the people I shared those memories with not standing and holding a trophy somewhere. It’s much more that headspace of being remembered, not stats. It’s more of that heartfelt thing than stats.”
At the end of the 45-minute press conference Thursday, after all the questions, the praise and the perspective, Johnson took the time to speak last. He thanked everyone from longtime friends, teammates, Hall of Famers he looked up to, his family and his friends.
And as Johnson began reciting all the people and achievements he was so grateful for, he conceded he was getting emotional.
“I’m just very, very thankful and my mind’s running right now,” Johnson said. “Thank you.”