Jimmie Johnson mentors NASCAR’s next wave: ‘He leads by example’

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – On the eve of Jimmie Johnson’s last full-time season, he is being hailed as one of NASCAR’s greatest.

Not just as a driver but as a person.

Beyond 83 victories and seven championships in Cup, Johnson also established himself as a highly accessible and supportive mentor whose wisdom is viewed with great regard by the next generation in NASCAR’s premier series.

Perhaps the best example is Corey LaJoie, whom Johnson vouched for to help get the 28-year-old in a Cup ride. Because of Johnson’s support, LaJoie could be among the candidates being considered by Hendrick Motorsports to fill the No. 48 next season.

“In this garage area, as we all know we’re around each other so often, so much, if you want, you can form a relationship and a friendship pretty quick,” Johnson said. “I just always have. I’ve always had people be open and available for me. I know how it’s shaped my career. I’ve just wanted to do the same.

“It’s just me.”

At Media Day for Sunday’s Daytona 500, several drivers in their 20s were asked for their best stories about Johnson, how he’s influenced them and what his impact and legacy will be in NASCAR.

Here are their responses:

Ryan Blaney: “I grew up watching Jimmie and I was in Late Models when he was winning five in a row. As a kid, how could you not be a fan of that guy and how humble he is? It has been a pleasure to race with him the last handful of years. It has been a lot of fun. I got chewed out by him last year (at Watkins Glen), which was great. I look back on that, and it is a fond memory of mine. I will never forget that. It is a good memory because we got over it the next week. You never see that side of Jimmie. It is unfortunate that I had to be the one to bring that side out in him.

“I remember standing at driver intros with my dad when I was a kid, and Jimmie was standing there, and now I am standing at driver intros with him. I am lucky enough to become friends with him over the years. It has actually made me pretty upset the last couple of years that people have been saying negative things about him. He has had a rough couple of years from what he is used to and people are saying he is washed up and things like that. That actually pisses me off. You see that a lot with great athletes as they get further on in their careers. People forget the great things they have done and just focus on the here and now. It is going to be weird not racing with Jimmie because I love racing with him. I don’t think people realize how good he really is until he isn’t around it anymore. You will look back and be like, ‘Man, we were experiencing a legend.’ I don’t think people give him enough credit and that is unfortunate.”

Alex Bowman: “In 2014, when I was driving my first year in Cup for a low-budget team, he was like the first guy to come up to me and be like, ‘You’re doing a really good job with that car.’ I think we had just run Vegas, and he was like, ‘Man, that thing looked terrible, but you’re doing a really good job’. So, he was the first to come up and say that. I thought that was really cool because I didn’t know him at all before that. But just really being able to be around him, see the type of person that he is and just try to be a sponge when he’s around. He’s more successful than anyone that is racing right now and he’s also the most humble guy in the garage. He’s just a great human being and the way he carries himself has been really cool to learn from.”

William Byron: “He’s been a huge mentor for me, kind of given me a lot of support. We’ve just kind of grown the off-track relationship, being at the karting track, working with him on a personal level with fitness, understanding how my body works and things like that. He’s been a huge mentor in those areas. I grew up being a big Jimmie Johnson fan, and that feels cool. I think just the mentor side he has for us, what he brings to the table in that area is going to be missed.”

Matt DiBenedetto: “He’s always been a good level-headed guy to go to and talk with and even just talking on basic, personal things just as a human being has always been good to get to know him. He’s always given really neat reinforcement of ‘Keep grinding.’ He’s understood my path to get here and how hard I’ve worked and for a seven-time champion to have always been so encouraging throughout my career has really meant a lot more than he’ll know.”

Austin Dillon: “When I was in Xfinity and running for a championship in the first year, I reached out to him. I was running like second or third while running for that championship and just wanted his advice as a Chevy driver.

“And he came back with everything he could give me as far as wisdom in racing for a championship. How he would race for a championship. He started texting me after each race and was coming back to me with something even through Homestead and practices. It was cool. Then in the second year in Xfinity when we won the championship, we were doing similar things. But this time he was actually asking me similar questions on what the track would do.

“Hearing that from a guy that won five championships at that time, I was just kind of mind blown that he was able to talk to someone that is in a lesser series and be able to learn from them. He was going to take anything he could take and apply it to his game. That is something that I will always remember from Jimmie, is the relentless effort and not afraid to get better in any way.”

Chase Elliott: “He won five (championships) in a row. Like the seven thing is great, that’s amazing. But five in a row? Y’all sit back and think about that. That’s about as many times as I’ve won a race, which isn’t saying much. I think about all the great drivers who won one. That’s crazy. Probably won’t ever happen ever again, ever.

“I think he just exemplifies how you should go about your life really on and off the racetrack. I think he’s a great person. He has his off-the-track life figured out. He treats people the way they deserve to be treated. He’s just a class guy. I think he leads by example. I’ve enjoyed having somebody like that to look up to.

“I don’t understand why (Johnson doesn’t get as much credit for his results). I don’t know if it’s just an era thing. On the same token, he was around in the mid-2000s when some other guys were, too, that I feel like get a lot of that recognition and names that you know. I don’t know. I really don’t. I’ve often wondered that. I’ve never really understood.

“I do think it will be one of those things that once he’s gone, people are going to be like, ‘Whoa!’ Maybe it’s just because he’s such a nice guy that he hasn’t changed at all. He’s had that same even keel that he had when he came in in 2000 or 2001. Never had the big personality, I guess, to go along with all the success, which I think is great. I think that’s how it should be or how you should be.”

Tyler Reddick: “Any time I’ve ever needed anything or had questions, he’s always been real quick to reply. If I ever had any questions — racing related, bikes, whatever — he’s right there to help, give advice. Just speaks to who Jimmie is. Everyone here for the most part knows what I’m talking about. He’s a standup guy. If you need help with something, he’s going to help you. That’s really cool.”

Bubba Wallace: “Last (November) at Texas, we were under caution. We were having a terrible race. I looked up on the pylon, and he was like fifth and I’m like hell yeah. I just happened to look over and he’s right next to me so I pulled (up) and I get close to him and I gave him a thumbs up and he comes back and revs it up at me. So, he was pumped. I’m a huge fan of Jimmie. Everybody in the field wants to compete against him, but all of us are pulling for him. I know I am; to get back into Victory Lane and go out and win the championship. That would be cool.

“When they say, ‘seven-time champion,’ they say ‘Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty.’ And then they’re like, ‘Oh, and Jimmie Johnson.’ It’s like ‘What? He’s right there with them.’ I guess that’s just Jimmie’s persona. He’s cool, calm, and collected and under the radar. Jimmie is an all-around great guy. He knows how to get it done on the race track.”

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