Jimmie Johnson knows how much racing fans are missing NASCAR. And he is missing those same fans.
NASCAR has postponed all races through May 3 at Dover International Speedway. Johnson feels compassion not just for his peers in the sport who aren’t working, but also for fans who are unable to enjoy watching racing either in person or on TV.
“For me in my final year in a Cup car, I feel more for the fans that wanted to see me at their track and experience that and have it,” Johnson said Thursday during a media teleconference. “I know where I am and I’m very content and fulfilled with the career I’ve had. Sure, I want to be on track, sure, I want to go to these places a final time. I feel more for the fans that aren’t having that opportunity right now that I long for myself to experience it and to be there, if that makes any sense.
“And that’s only a small piece in the grand scheme of things when you look at all the individuals that are affected by the coronavirus and the families that have been affected, and the economy, and businesses and business owners. This is way bigger than me and way bigger than what was going to be my final time at these tracks.
“So, that stuff hasn’t really even crossed my mind, honestly, is why I bring it up. There have been so many other issues at-hand to think about and be concerned with, that I haven’t thought much at all about it being my final year and what I might be missing for myself. It’s been more about others and more about the fans and what I see on my social thread, I see people that have been lifelong fans that are sad they don’t get to see me run. So, it’s been about others far more than it’s been about what affect this has had on me, personally.”
The 2020 season is slated to be Johnson’s final full-time campaign in NASCAR Cup. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, and depending how long it continues, the seven-time Cup champion was asked if he would consider postponing his planned retirement from full-time Cup race after this season.
“I really don’t have any answer just yet because I don’t know what’s going to happen in the coming months and if we’ll be able to run the full season or not,” Johnson said. “I feel like I set out to make 2020 my last full-time year, but I’ve always left the door open for other racing and NASCAR and abroad for the future and I feel like I’m still pretty much on that path.
“I am hopeful that we get our full year in and we can get that going here in a month or so or whatever the latest projected number possibly could be and that I can run the season in its entirety. I really don’t have an answer. It’s up in the air just as so much is in the world right now.”
If NASCAR is able to resume soon, the series plans to run all 32 remaining races, including the seven that have been postponed. That could mean doubleheader weekends and midweek races. Although that would present a grueling challenge for teams and drivers, Johnson said he’s up for it.
“I don’t have a problem with it on my end,” Johnson said. “As a driver, you just want to take your helmet and go. Racing is the most fun we can have.
“But, I’m just one point of view on that. I quickly think about the crew members that have to get the cars ready and physically move everything around the country as we need to. I know there’s a lot more that goes into it.
“I can only imagine the balancing act that NASCAR, TV, and these tracks will need to do. Every weekend that goes by just complicates that situation more and more. I feel like many of our contracts and much of the structure that exists revolves around 36 races. And I would assume that’s the highest priority is to have those 36 points-paying events.
“How that happens for me, I’m totally fluid. I’m totally open. I know we’re in unchartered territory here and I’ll do my part and whatever I can to certainly support whatever decisions are made to try to get in all 36 races.”
If NASCAR winds up going to a schedule that could see multiple races per week, Johnson said such a grind could favor a few drivers.
“I think Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell and some of these guys that have grown-up racing dirt are more accustomed to multiple venues in a weekend and tracks and all that kind of thing,” Johnson said. “For me, I’ve lived through the testing era, where we had unlimited testing and spent a lot of time during the week at different tracks and moving around. They are long weeks. But, I personally enjoyed the physical challenge that went with it.
“The mental side was a little different because you could only focus where you were at that time. So in some respects, it didn’t give you all week to overthink and over-prepare for what you were going to do. It almost simplified things where hey, I’m at X-track now and that’s where my focus needs to be. Dig into my notes and my routine and do the best I can and move on.
“So in some ways it simplifies the mental aspect. Physically will be far more difficult. And then whatever a driver experiences, crew chiefs, crew members, the traveling-side and even the media. It’s going to be way harder for everybody. The drivers would probably have it the best or the easiest, if you will, work-wise, and the rest of the industry is really going to have to sort out how to manage that physical and mental endurance that’s going to be required.”
The prospect of potentially running races in front of empty grandstands is one that Johnson has mixed feelings about.
“It’s not the ideal situation by any means,” he said. “I know our sport amongst every other sport out there is going to be faced with that decision, and if they choose to compete with fans in the stands or not.
“For me, it’s a real simple answer. There are millions that watch on television, and I don’t want to deprive the greater sum because we can’t have the fans in the stands.
“I get it, I want fans in the stands. They deserve to be there. We want them there. There’s an energy that comes with it. But we are in uncharted territory and we’re going to have to do things a little different than what we’re used to. And if we can get back to the track months before because fans aren’t in the stands, and provide our sport to millions and get people back to work and some normalcy going on in our country and our industry, I’m definitely for that.”