Ryan: A fitting opening farewell for Jimmie Johnson, the family man

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CONCORD, N.C. – The midafternoon rays poured through the plate glass picture windows, and illumination suddenly came for this unusually late green flag on a momentous announcement befitting a much earlier timeslot.

Now it made sense: The backdrop of a gorgeous November sunset stretched across the sprawling campus of Hendrick Motorsports was the perfect setting to discuss the dusk of Jimmie Johnson’s career.

Except that wasn’t the reason for holding this opening farewell at the curious start time of 4 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon.

This wasn’t about an ending. The big clue in timing was at the beginning of the news conference to announce the final chapter of perhaps the greatest career in NASCAR history.

FRIDAY 5: Johnson’s final Cup season also marks final tribute to a friend

“Girls, please join us,” host Winston Kelley called out to Johnson’s daughters, Genevieve and Lydia, who scrambled up the stage in their floral and pink dresses.

“On behalf of our entire family, we would like to thank you for all being here,” Genevieve confidently told the crowd. “Today is a very special announcement. We would like to ask Mr. Hendrick of Hendrick Motorsports and the driver of the No. 48 Ally Chevrolet, seven-time NASCAR champion and our dad, Jimmie Johnson, to please join us on the stage.”

To explain his full-time departure from NASCAR’s premier circuit in 2020, Jimmie Johnson scheduled a news conference at 4 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon because his kids had tests that couldn’t be rescheduled to pull them out of school.

Given their impact on his life-changing decision, he wanted them present. Genevieve, 9, was still “processing the news,” and Lydia, 6, barely feigned interest when dad tried to show her a video Wednesday morning that he soon would post to social media to tell the world.

“Breakfast is a very important part of the day, a focal point for my kids,” Johnson said with a chuckle. “Lydia was midway through her pancakes and could not be bothered and wanted me to pass the butter.”

It turns out Johnson’s youngest can be a tough nut to crack just like the seven-time champion sometimes can be, and Thursday was the most quintessential of Jimmie Johnson news conferences.

Over the course of 45 minutes, there was hardly an ounce of sentimentality about his vast accomplishments. With the exception of a brief quaver and a couple of tears shed at team owner Rick Hendrick’s closing remarks, there was no discernible emotion.

“I’m just very, very thankful for relationships that I’ve built in this sport,” Johnson, 44, said in wrapping up. “My mind is running wild on me right now, and I’m trying not to cry.

That was as close as he got.


Complete and cool detachment, total focus under duress and mental toughness always have been overlooked hallmarks of Johnson’s greatness. They also burn brightly during interviews focusing solely on his life and a career that has featured 83 wins in NASCAR’s premier series and an unprecedented five consecutive championships.

Away from the track, it also includes a 2019 Boston Marathon appearance, thousands of miles in competitive cycling and more than $11.5 million donated through his foundation to schools, hospitals and charities that focus on children in need.

But Johnson rarely reflects publicly in meaningful ways on all that he’s done.

You always have to look harder (because humility keeps him from tipping his hand) to fully understand what drives this once-in-a-generation athlete who might have won the Tour de France instead of the Daytona 500 if he’d put his mind to it.

But once you do, it all makes sense.

“That’s the one thing that people don’t realize about Jimmie,” said longtime crew chief Chad Knaus, who guided Johnson to all his championships while also becoming a best friend. “And I’ve been able to witness it firsthand. When he puts his mind to something, he sets the goals, and he achieves them. Every one of us wants to go and lose weight. Every one of us wants to eat better. And we all halfheartedly attempt to make those goals and actually complete them. He just does it. He’s a pretty special person from that standpoint.”

It’s perhaps the primary reason he has been so wildly successful and why he was so laser-focused Thursday on his performance in his 19th and final season in 2020. He hardly mentioned his family after the introduction even when pressed for how they had influenced his decision.

“I knew that at some point, that was really going to really weigh on me to want to be around (family) a lot more,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to believe they are 9 and 6 now, and that much time has elapsed, but I just have a fire in me to push for that and stay at the track.

“I still have that fire, and I am coming back next year. Next year is not a mail-it-in year. It’s a year we are going to win races and compete for a championship. So I know I can give what I need to this team for another year. After that, I’m ready to have some time back on my side and just have a better balance in life.”

There were glimpses of that balance after Thursday’s program when he spent 20 minutes taking photos with close friends and family.

The first thing he tweeted Friday morning was a collage of his daughters and his wife, Chandra, underscoring their importance in throttling back.

Knaus can relate after becoming a first-time father himself last year to Kipling.

“I would give up every championship and every race win for my son,” Knaus said. “Anybody that has children can identify with that. I never knew the impact that Kipling was going to have on me.

“For Jimmie to have those same emotions for two girls, I can’t even begin to imagine how he’s lasted as long as he has. It’s pretty remarkable, but he’s going to be a great dad. They’re going to have somebody to come home crying to when they have a bad day at school, and he’s going to be there. He’s not going to be necessarily in New Hampshire, Atlanta, Pocono, where he’s not there to share it with them.”

Crew chief Cliff Daniels said Johnson had indicated he needed to step back because he virtually would have no other way to know if his girls needed him more.

“It’s interesting how grateful he has been the whole time that his girls and Chani have supported him no matter what and openly told him as long as he wants to keep driving, they will support him,” Daniels said. “To have that support, I almost think made him a little more introspective to say ‘OK, am I doing the right thing to continue to require this sort of patience and sacrifice from them?’

“I know it is a factor, and he just wants to be at a place in his life where he can enjoy his family, enjoy his career and take a breath.”

Chandra Johnson smiles during the news conference for her husband, Jimmie Johnson (AP Photo/Bob Leverone).

As usual with Johnson, you don’t get nearly as much out of him about himself.

He is always accommodating and among the most well-spoken NASCAR drivers for delivering big-picture quotes that can be sharply critical.

He falls into opacity when asked to turn the lens inward, leaning back on a bevy of buzzwords (“headspace”, or just “space”, is often popular) to explain himself in often unintentionally cryptic ways.

It’s better to ask those who know him best about the decision to end his career.

Daniels was given the news in a Tuesday night dinner at Haberdish, a Southern comfort food restaurant in Charlotte’s NoDa arts district (near a gallery owned by his wife).

Over two to three hours of conversation, Daniels could tell Johnson was at peace with the decision after consecutive winless seasons but no less inspired to end on a high note after missing the playoffs for the first time in 2019.

“It was a completely refreshing conversation,” Daniels said. “It wasn’t a shocking surprise. … To know he is still very positive about himself really means a lot to me because I know we’re going to see that on the racetrack next year. We’re going to see a guy who’s energized, excited, kind of rejuvenated to really go out on top, and I think he’s more than capable.”

Jeff Gordon, who hand-picked Johnson as the driver of Hendrick’s No. 48 after being impressed in an Xfinity race nearly 20 years ago, said his former protegé already had made up his mind about full-time retirement when they recently met for coffee … and likely long before that.

“Heck, I can remember when I was retiring (in 2015), hearing just a few questions that maybe he asked about the process and what made me decide that was the time,” Gordon said. “But the last couple of weeks, he and I got together, and it was more us just bouncing thoughts and ideas as friends.”

So what is next after 2020?

Probably something in racing. There are hints about sports cars (Johnson has raced in but has yet to win the Rolex 24) and IndyCar races on street and road courses. The World of Outlaws tweeted an invite to run a sprint car.

“He’s very committed and nothing will stop him, so who knows,” Gordon said of Johnson. “I got to compete against him in basically the same equipment, and I can tell you I’ve never raced with anybody better. That’s why I respect him so much. I’ll just second what a lot of people have been saying is the way he’s done it. To do it with class, style, his own way. I appreciate that.”

“I looked up to other drivers and either tried to emulate them or tried to beat them and hopefully force them to step their game up. I hope that I did that for others, but I can tell you 100% Jimmie did that for me and others, I’m sure. I thought that I had things figured out, and then Jimmie Johnson comes along and starts beating me on a regular basis. It forced me to look within myself and go, ‘OK, what am I not doing? What more can I do?’ He elevated my game.”


Johnson always has tried to downplay that legacy and did so again Thursday by nothing he’s “not very smart.” He unfailingly has presented himself for nearly 20 years as just the simple son of a heavy machinery operator and a school bus driver from a lower-middle class trailer park in El Cajon, California.

Such a backstory should have resonated more with NASCAR’s blue-collar fan base, which mostly seems to overlook his fun-loving side that was baked in the freewheeling Southern California sun.

Car owner Rick Hendrick was right to call Johnson “the perfect driver” as far as talent, sponsor relations and physical commitment. “You never had to make an excuse for Jimmie Johnson,” Hendrick said. “He was always on his mark. He never embarrassed anybody. He is a role model and an athlete that I’ve never seen in any kind of sport.”

But his driver also is no saint, and he knows how to have fun. He celebrated his first championship with an ill-advised and alcohol-drenched surfing stunt atop a golf cart at a charity tournament, resulting in a tumble and a broken wrist.

On an entryway table Thursday, Johnson offered a media gift – 50 ml glass bottles of Patron Silver – that was a nod to an upstanding seven-time champion who also favored tequila shots with his team members in an anteroom at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas — an annual tradition they started during NASCAR Champion’s Week.

Jimmie Johnson’s gift for those attending his news conference Thursday (AP Photo/Bob Leverone).

But Johnson always has resisted — not on purpose, mind you, it’s just the way he’s wired to be reserved and humble on camera — the attempts to jam him into the boxes that conveniently would explain how a relative unknown showed up in 2002 and effortlessly outran heralded teammate Gordon to reach NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore (albeit in the Teddy Roosevelt position).

It’s made it more difficult to appreciate how great Johnson is

When he is inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2024, Johnson will take his rightful place alongside Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty. He is their equal in on-track titles and as an off-track ambassador.

The comparisons stop there, though. Johnson is extremely well-liked among his peers but never has been labeled as the Mr. Congeniality of Petty or having the John Wayne swagger of Earnhardt.

This is more an indictment of us than him. Johnson always has compartmentalized his feelings, but he also has done it with dignity and earnestness that sometimes is mischaracterized as robotic and vanilla.

In a racing series that has celebrated bad guys, he frequently has been criticized for just being too … good.

“On the track, off the track; I mean I think sometimes people didn’t respect him because he was too perfect,” Hendrick said. “You know, that he didn’t have that big edge. But he could win and do it like that and be a gentleman and race people clean and ever had any problems. And so when history looks back at him, they’ll say that this guy was an unbelievable athlete (and) father, and he and Chani give so much away

“In every box that you check in life (like) what you do with kids, how you raise your family, and you’re a champion. And every sponsor that he’s had, they love him to death. I just think the stats speak for themselves. But people are going to remember the man, Jimmie Johnson.”

And soon he’ll be just the family man.

With much more time to enjoy the sunsets with his girls.

Long: NASCAR needs to quickly correct officiating issue from Texas

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NASCAR’s admission that it did not see William Byron spin Denny Hamlin under caution during Sunday’s Cup playoff race is troubling.

With video evidence of impropriety and Hamlin’s team vigorously arguing for relief, there were enough reasons for series officials to take a closer look at putting Hamlin back to second before the race returned to green-flag conditions. Or some other remedy even after the race resumed. 

Add the lack of access series officials had to Byron’s in-car camera— something fans could readily see at NASCAR.com and the NASCAR Mobile App — and changes need to be made before this weekend’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

While NASCAR should make every effort to judge matters between drivers regardless of their playoff status, that it was two playoff drivers involved in an incident demanded greater attention. With three races per round, one misstep can mean the difference between advancing or being eliminated. 

Just as more is expected from drivers and teams in the playoffs, the same should be expected of officials.

“If we had seen that (contact) good enough to react to it in real time, which we should have, like no excuse there, there would probably have been two courses of action,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition Sunday night. “One would have been to put Hamlin back where he was, or the other would be to have made William start in the back.”

Here is how the incident played out:

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash at 8:19 p.m. ET.

As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

About 90 seconds after the caution lights illuminated, the USA broadcast showed a replay from a low angle of Byron directly behind Hamlin’s car and apparent contact. 

Contact can happen in multiple ways. It can come from the lead car hitting the brakes and forcing the car behind to hit them, or it can come from the trailing car ramming into the car ahead. The first video replay did not make it clear what caused the contact, making it difficult for any official to rule one way or the other based solely on that.

This also is a time when NASCAR officials were monitoring safety vehicles on track, checking the lineup and making sure pit road was ready to be open. It’s something NASCAR does effortlessly much of the time. Just not this time. 

A different replay aired on USA 11 minutes, 16 seconds after the caution that showed Byron and Hamlin’s car together. That replay aired about a minute before the green flag waved at 8:31 p.m. ET. Throughout the caution, Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart argued that Hamlin should have restarted second.

But once the race resumed, the matter was over for NASCAR. Or so it seemed.

Three minutes after the green flag waved, the NASCAR Twitter account posted in-car video that showed Byron running into the back of Hamlin’s car while the caution was out. Such action is typically a penalty — often parking a driver for the rest of the race. Instead, Byron was allowed to continue and nothing was done during the rest of the event. 

After the race, Miller told reporters that series officials didn’t see the contact from Byron. 

“The cameras and the monitors that we’ve got, we dedicate them mostly to officiating and seeing our safety vehicles and how to dispatch them,” Miller said. “By the time we put all those cameras up (on the monitor in the control tower), we don’t have room for all of the in-car cameras to be monitored.

“If we would have had immediate access to (Byron)’s in-car camera, that would have helped us a lot, being able to find that quickly. That’s definitely one of the things we’re looking at.”

But it didn’t happen that way.

”By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green,” Miller said.

NASCAR didn’t act. By that time maybe it was too late to do so. But that’s also an issue. Shouldn’t the infraction be addressed immediately if it is clear what happened instead of days later? Shouldn’t officials have been provided with access to the in-car cameras so they could have seen Byron’s actions earlier and meted the proper punishment? Instead, Miller hinted at a possible penalty to Byron this week.

Miller didn’t reveal details but it wouldn’t be surprising to drop Byron in the field, costing him points. He’s 24 points from the cutline, so a penalty that drops him from seventh to 30th (the position ahead of Truex) could be logical and that would cost Byron 23 points, putting him near the cutline. 

Texas winner Tyler Reddick said something should have been done. He knows. He was parked in a 2014 Truck race at Pocono for wrecking German Quiroga in retaliation for an earlier incident.

“In William’s situation, whether he ran him over on accident or on purpose, there should be some sort of penalty for him on that side because he’s completely screwed someone’s race up, whether it was on purpose or not,” Reddick said. “I feel like there should be something done there.

“I’m sure (NASCAR will) make some sort of a decision. I’m sure there will be something they’ll address this week, updates, on NASCAR’s side. I’ll be curious to see what that is. We can’t really have this where you dump someone under caution, they go to the back and you don’t. That could potentially be an interesting situation in the future.”

Texas shuffles NASCAR Cup playoff standings

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Texas marked the fourth consecutive playoff race that the winner didn’t advance to the next round.

All three races in the first round were won by drivers not in the playoffs. Tyler Reddick won Sunday at Texas, a week after he failed to advance from the Round of 16 and was eliminated from title contention.

Texas did shake up the playoff standings. Chase Elliott entered as the points leader but a blown tire while leading sent his car into the wall, ending his race. He falls to the No. 8 spot, the final transfer position with two races left in this round. He’s tied with Daniel Suarez, but Suarez has the tiebreaker with a better finish this round.

Chase Briscoe, who scored only his second top 10 in the last 22 races, is the first driver outside a transfer spot. He’s four points behind Elliott and Suarez. Austin Cindric is 11 points out of the transfer spot. Christopher Bell is 29 points out of a transfer position. Alex Bowman is 30 points from the transfer line.

The series races Sunday at Talladega (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

 

XFINITY SERIES

Noah Gragson’s win at Texas moved him on to the next round. The win was his fourth in a row.

Ryan Sieg and Sam Mayer are tied for the final two transfer spots to the next round. Riley Herbst is one point behind them. Daniel Hemric is eight points from the final transfer spot. Brandon Jones is 13 points from the last transfer spot. Jeremy Clements is 29 points shy of the final transfer position.

The series races Saturday at Talladega (4 p.m. ET on USA Network).

 

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

The series was off this past weekend but returns to the track Saturday at Talladega. Ty Majeski has advanced to the championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

 

Winners and losers at Texas Motor Speedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s marathon race at Texas Motor Speedway:

WINNERS

Tyler Reddick – Reddick isn’t acting like a lame duck. Headed for 23XI Racing in 2024 (if not sooner), Reddick now owns three wins with Richard Childress Racing, the team he’ll be leaving.

Justin Haley – Haley, who has shown flashes of excellence this season for Kaulig Racing, matched his season-high with a third-place run.

Chase Briscoe — Briscoe wrestled with major problems in the early part of the race but rebounded to finish fifth. It’s his second top-10 finish in the last 22 races.

LOSERS

NASCAR Officials – Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, admitted that series officials missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution after Martin Truex Jr.‘s crash. Such a situation could have major playoff implications, although Miller hinted that series officials may still act this week.

Christopher Bell – Bell met the wall twice after blown tires and finished a sour 34th, damaging his playoff run in a race that he said was critical in the playoffs.

Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. – Harvick (finished 19th) and Truex (31st) were late-race victims of the day’s tire dilemma. Both crashed while leading.

Track workers  Somebody had to clean up all that tire debris.

Chase Elliott – Elliott remains a power in the playoffs, but he left Sunday’s race in a fiery exit after a blown tire while leading and finished 32nd. He holds the final transfer spot to the next round heading into Talladega.

 

 

Blown tires end race early for several Texas contenders

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FORT WORTH, Texas — A Goodyear official said that air pressures that teams were using contributed to some drivers blowing tires in Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. all crashed while leading after blowing a tire. Among the others who had tire issues were Alex Bowman, Chris Buescher Cole Custer and Christopher Bell twice. 

“We’re gaining as much information as we can from the teams, trying to understand where they are with regard to their settings, air pressures, cambers, suspicions,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing Sunday. “For sure I can say without a doubt air pressure is playing into it. We know where a lot of the guys are. Some were more aggressive than others. We know that plays a part.

MORE: NASCAR says it missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution 

“I’m not saying that’s the only thing, but it’s certainly a factor, so we’re just trying to understand everything else that is going on with regard to specific teams. We know a lot of guys have not had issues. We’ve had guys put full fuel runs on tires, but, obviously, other guys have had issues. We’ll be working with them to try to sort through that is.”

Eight of the 16 cautions were related to tire failures that caused drivers to spin or crash.

“It’s not a good look, that’s for sure,” Ryan Blaney said of the tire issues others had. “How many leaders blew tires tonight? Three or four?

“You just don’t understand what is making these things do that. From last week to this week, it’s really unfortunate. It’s just luck now.

“You never know if you’re going to blow one. You go into (Turn) 3 almost every lap with 40 laps on your stuff and I don’t know if one is going to blow out or not. That’s not safe. That’s for sure. Running (180) into (Turn) 3 and the thing blows out and you have no time to react to it. It’s unfortunate. I hope we can figure that out.”

Blaney said he was confused that the tires were blowing partly into a run instead of much earlier.

“It was weird because those tires didn’t blow right away,” he said. “Like the pressures were low. They blew like after a cycle or two on them, which is the weird thing.”

Asked how he handles that uncertainty, Blaney said: “Nothing I can do about it. Just hope and pray.”

After his crash, Elliott was diplomatic toward Goodyear’s situation:

“I’m not sure that Goodyear is at fault,” he said. “Goodyear always takes the black eye, but they’re put in a really tough position by NASCAR to build a tire that can survive these types of racetracks with this car. I wouldn’t blame Goodyear.”

Tyler Reddick, who won Sunday’s race at Texas, said his team made adjustments to the air pressure settings after Saturday’s practice.

“We ran enough laps, were able to see that we had been too aggressive on our right front tire,” he said. “So we made some adjustments going into the race, thankfully.”

This same time was used at Kansas and will be used again at Las Vegas next month in the playoffs. 

Reddick is hopeful of a change but also knows it might take time.

“I just think to a degree, potentially, as these cars have gotten faster and we’re getting more speed out of them, maybe, hypothetically speaking, we’re putting the cars through more load and more stress on the tire than they ever really thought we would be,” he said. 

“I know Goodyear will fix it. That’s what they do. It’s going to be a process. I know they’re going to be on top of it. Hey, they don’t want to see those failures. We don’t want to see them either. They’re going to be working on looking through and trying to find out exactly what is going on. We’ll all learn from it.

“It’s a brand-new car. It’s the first time in the history of our sport we’ve gone to an 18-inch wheel and independent rear suspension. All these things are way different, diffuser. All these things, way different. We’re all learning together. Unfortunately, just the nature of it, we’re having tire failures.”