Jimmie Johnson will make one final start as a full-time NASCAR Cup Series driver Sunday at Phoenix Raceway.
When the checkered flag flies in this year’s season finale, Johnson will for all intents and purpose bring down the curtain on a certain Hall of Fame Cup career that started in 2001 and amassed 83 victories coming into the weekend as well as a record-tying seven championships.
With the end to his NASCAR tenure in sight and opportunities to extend his racing life to Indy Car and possible sports car racing ahead, it’s not surprising at all for Johnson to take some time and reflect on his career.
“There’s some aspects of it that are without a doubt bittersweet, but then there are many aspects of it that I’m very excited for, you know, I’m excited to close this chapter, move on from this chapter to the next,” Johnson said. “I feel very fulfilled and what I’ve been able to accomplish in my 21 seasons of NASCAR racing – 19 in Cup and two in Xfinity.
“I’m ready to balance my life out and I feel very fortunate as an athlete that I’m able to make that decision on my own and not have some other issue kind of forced this decision upon me. I am excited, but again, it is bittersweet.”
Johnson made his mark in NASCAR racing in historic fashion tying legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with seven titles and climbing to sixth on the all-time win list. But his legacy reaches far beyond what Johnson accomplished behind the wheel, which makes the California native even more proud of his time in the sport.
However, none of it has come easy and Johnson acknowledges the challenges along the way including this year when he was forced to miss a race after testing positive for COVID-19.
“I’m trying to right now and I feel like if this year was as intended and COVID didn’t happen I would have a much deeper, richer experience, but I have had a great one,” Johnson said when asked to reflect on his final season. “Being honored in so many ways at the various tracks, social media and the fans reaching out. My partners and sponsors are doing neat things on social right now. NASCAR just did something recently.
“You know, I’m seeing these things and it is helping me take it in and I’m finally allowing myself to do it. The time is right. So it’s very meaningful and I just look back on these highlights and I cannot believe that’s me and that 48 car with that race team having a lot success. It’s been a wild journey.”
The Jimmie Johnson highlight reel would take days to watch considering his may achievements and picking just one is an impossible task. But Johnson does have some special moments he cherishes, including when he scored title number seven in 2016.
“It was a special day in one that I don’t know how people feel about this or if they’ve had an experience of it,” he explained of the Homestead-Miami Speedway season finale that season. “But as that race unfolded and I took the lead on the back straightaway I thought Ricky Hendrick get in the car with me and some of you might remember my hashtag was ‘se7en’ and that was obviously trying to win a seventh championship. But I did it in a way that was very special to Ricky Hendrick and Hendrick Motorsports and the Hendrick family. And there’s this honoring all year long of Ricky that led to that race and it was just the wildest experience I’ve ever had in a race car.
“When I heard (spotter) Earl (Barban) say clear on the back straightaway. I swear to you he was in the race car with me. So to have that emotional, and I guess maybe spiritual or enlightening, moment is something I’ve never had before so that really stands out to me. I thought it wasn’t our night. Up until 10 to go I was the slowest of the four eligible drivers. So to have that flip from one mindset to the other and the emotions that came with, the celebration that followed was pretty epic.”
Johnson expects Sunday to be an emotional day as he winds down his time in NASCAR. It would be an even more special moment had the virus crisis not limited the number of fans allowed into Phoenix Raceway. But Johnson wants to ensure his loyal and even those not so enamored with his exploits, know how much they’ve meant to him over the course of his career.
“It really is difficult and all I can truthfully say and honestly say is just thank you,” he said. “Thank you for your support. Thank you for being a fan. Thank you for being a fan of NASCAR. Thank you for making this world possible for all of us that live and work in it. I am truly sorry that I haven’t been able to share all these experiences with the fans and their presence is so obvious.
“The majority of the year has been without fans. It is nice to see things opening back up and kind of the soul that they bring to the track and the energy they bring to the track is irreplaceable. So just a huge thank you and this isn’t the way that they or I wanted it to go down, but I really do appreciate their support and hope to have your support in the future.”