The Short List: Jimmie Johnson finalizing NASCAR legacy


In some distant reckoning, Jimmie Johnson will get the legacy he deserves. He will get lasting acclaim for winning seven NASCAR season titles, which only Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Sr., had done before him; and for winning five consecutive titles, which no one else had done, or has done since. He will get praise for winning 83 races (tied for the sixth-most in history), including two Daytona 500s. Fans will endlessly debate his place on some imprecise ranking of the best ever, but rest assured: There is a short list, and he’s on it forever.

Less tangibly, he will be lastingly regarded as a supremely skilled driver on the track and a pioneer off it, a California boy who took Jeff Gordon’s expansion of the NASCAR base audience and expanded it further. “NASCAR vacations were thought of as hunting and fishing,’’ says Gordon. “Jimmie and I went to Aspen and the South of France. A little fashion, a little flair. I like to think I took the sport to a new set of fans, and Jimmie just took that to the next level.’’ All of this will come to Johnson in its time. His story will be an essential chapter in the story of his sport. Period.

In the present, it’s been much more complicated. In less than two weeks, Johnson will head to Phoenix for his last race as a full-time NASCAR driver, in effect, his retirement race. But he will go there not as the dominant driver of the late 2000s, or even as the driver who took down one last title just four years ago. Entering this week’s race at Phoenix, he is on a 129-race winless streak, dating back to Dover, on the first weekend in June of 2017, and he’s twice missed the title-deciding playoffs. And obviously, there is much more: His final season has been robbed of appropriate ceremony by a pandemic that reached inside his home and turned NASCAR into a semi-bubbled shell of itself, with sparse attendance a virtual wall separating drivers from fans. His wife and two daughters will be with him this weekend, for the first time since Fontana, more than seven months ago.

“I’m in a good place with my decision to step away,’’ said Johnson, when I interviewed him last month. “And I realize very few athletes get to make that decision on their own. So I’m lucky, but 2020 has been such an unusual year, and in the way I thought I would experience my final year with my team and fans, and most of all my family. … The reality has been far from the vision. And then you mix in the performance part of it, which has not been the success that I hoped for. So yeah, I have mixed feelings on 2020.’’

But here it’s important to step back and absorb a longer view. Sports traffic heavily in recency, in the now. In that world, Johnson is a barely faded legend, dominant not long ago, cool as a rule, fast and famous. Lost in that narrative is the reality that Johnson rose atypically, from the American West, not its South, on dirt bikes and off road cars. His first start in the Lowe’s No. 48 came about three weeks after his 26th birthday, in 2001, his first win a year later. “My younger years, before NASCAR, were not explosive,’’ says Johnson. “I was not an easy pick to do what I’ve done. My journey took a lot longer than some others, but once I had my chance I was ready to perform.’’

He was ready in part because he had failed. That is true of all drivers – and honestly, all athletes – but Johnson’s climb is a story best told by three crashes, separated by 17 years, nearly 3,000 miles of U.S. geography and something close to 80 miles an hour in land speed. One was minor, two were not; Johnson walked away from all three, largely unharmed, but in some way changed, and ever wiser. That is what crashes do – they teach through failure. Sometimes they teach fear, which can live on stubbornly. Sometimes they teach courage, which is invaluable, but best kept elastic. In Johnson’s case, the first crash taught him trust, the second taught him caution, and the third a form of invulnerability that can only be fully understood inside the cockpit, but which can be a powerful tool. Three crashes. Three rungs on a ladder to greatness, long before greatness was manifest. Three rungs also that helped a kid grow into a man and better manage the disruptions of the present.

The first was in the summer of 1983, when Johnson was an 8-year-old dirt biker in his native Southern California. He was racing that day at Barona Hills, a park in Lakeside, California with a moto course. He got beat in the first race of the day and afterward a guy named Ricky Johnson, a racer 10 years older and not related to Jimmie, got in his ear. There was a big double jump on the course, and Jimmie had pulled back on it, losing ground. This is what Ricky told him: “If you get to those jumps, and you just hold it wide open in third gear, you’re going to clear them and you’re going to beat that kid. But if you hesitate, you’re going to crash really bad and you’re going to get hurt.’’

Ricky looked into Jimmie’s eyes. “Do you feel confident to do it?’’

Jimmie looked back: “Yeah.’’

As instructed, Jimmie held the throttle wide open in third and sailed over the jumps into first place. But then he crashed on the side of the course. Not a hard fall, just tipped over, nothing damaged. Jimmie’s father, Gary, tore into Ricky. (They would all later become close friends.) “You’re trying to kill my kid!,’’ said Gary. Jimmie got back on his bike and finished the race. Ricky found him afterward and asked why he crashed after clearing the double jump. “Because I had my eyes closed,’’ said little Jimmie. “I was scared to death.’’

Ricky asked Jimmie why, if he was so frightened, had he committed to the jump. Jimmie’s answer: “Because you told me I could.’’

More than 37 years later, Ricky Johnson recalled the moment as foundational. “You know in the move Days Of Thunder, when Harry (Robert Duvall) tells Cole (Tom Cruise) to go on the high side? Cole knew he could do it, he just needed that encouragement from Harry, because he trusted Harry. That was always Jimmie. He crashed that day, but he is that guy. Over the years, he trusted his shock engineers, he trusted his motor guys, he trusted everybody. And then he goes 100 percent.’’

The second crash came 12 years later in the Baja 1000 off-road endurance race on the Baja California Peninsula. Johnson, by this time 19 years old, and his teammate, were 20 hours into a 26-hour race, when Johnson fell asleep at the wheel, went off the road, flipped over and rolled down an embankment. “The roll cage was smashed down on me,’’ says Johnson. “Probably took me five minutes to climb out of the car. Longer for my co-rider, because he was banged up pretty bad.’’ Johnson’s chase vehicle got into an accident of its own and also had to support another team car. Johnson spent 12 hours waiting to be picked up, which was humbling in the extreme. “We built a little shade out of some raincoat we had in the car,’’ says Johnson. “We had a little food, a little water, fortunately. Then we just waited on this rock pile in the desert.’’

This incident was transcendent for Johnson. He had spent the season crashing in off-road races, and his sponsors were beginning to question their support. “I had a day out there in the desert to think about everything,’’ says Johnson. “That’s a lot of time. There’s a term in off-road racing: How often do you get upside down? I had been getting upside down a lot. That incident changed me as a driver. I never got upside down again. I went from being this guy who was fast for a little while to somebody that all of a sudden knew how to race for championships and collect points. Like, really, no kidding, that crash completely changed me.’’

There would be another one that changed him further, in a very different way. It occurred on June 25, 2000, on the legendary serpentine road course in Watkins Glen, New York. Johnson was driving the No. 92 Chevrolet in a 200-mile Xfinity Series race. On the 46th of 82 laps, Johnson lost his brakes – a dangerous fluke, and obviously not his fault — and hurtled across an expanse of grass, went briefly airborne, and then bore down on a white wall at the outside boundary. “I assumed the wall was concrete,’’ says Johnson. “There are very few times I’ve been in a race car, thinking I’m not going to survive. Remember, this was before we had all the safety precautions we have today, with soft walls and head-and-neck devices. So this was one of those times.’’ [Dale Earnhardt, Sr. would die eight months later, after crashing head-on into the concrete wall at Daytona; a tragedy that spurred sweeping safety innovations].

On this cloudy afternoon in Central New York, Johnson bore down on the wall after exiting a course where the average speed would be just over 90 miles an hour. Five seconds passed before impact. “First of all, when anything goes wrong in the car, time goes by so slowly. And this one, it was a long time from when I lost brakes until I hit that wall. And it felt like an eternity, with nothing but fear running through my veins. I mean, real fear, because I was running through the likely outcomes in my mind and I thought it was over. Like, holy sh–. So I just went limp in the car and put my chin on my chest.’’

The wall was made of foam, and behind the foam, tires and an Armco barrier (fundamentally, a guardrail). “This huge soft wall system that saved me,’’ says Johnson. “I was totally fine.’’ In video of the crash, the foam wall disintegrates on impact, chunks flying skyward like a blizzard. Seconds later, Johnson emerges and stands on the roof, fists raised in temporary triumph over mortality. And in a sense, that was the lesson learned. A year later at the Glen, Johnson’s crew feared he might spend the day flinching, but instead he ran solidly, led four laps and finished 21st, running. “I think, for me, the crash was one of those situations where I felt like, Oooo, I survived that one, and if I survived that one, I can survive anything,’’ says Johnson. “I never felt, wow, I could have died, I never want to be in that position again. I guess I wound up looking at risk a little differently after that.’’

The assembled pieces of those crashes helped build Johnson into a race car driver.

A year after his Watkins Glen wreck came that NASCAR Cup Series debut and the year after that, in 2002, his first victory, at Fontana on the last weekend in April. Five weeks later, the first of his record 11 wins at Dover. In 2006, he won his first season Cup title and the first of five consecutive, followed by two more, in 2013 and ’16. It was a remarkable run for Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports and crew chief Chad Knaus. It ended abruptly – Johnson finished 10th in 2017, 14th in ’18 and 18th last season, missing the playoffs, after separating from Knaus. Johnson also missed the playoffs this season, and sits 18th entering Martinsville. His three Hendrick teammates – Chase Elliott, William Byron and Alex Bowman, average age: 24.3 years – all made the playoffs. Torch-passing.

There’s been no shortage of speculation among NASCAR fans and insiders as to why Johnson fell from the top. Ricky Johnson says it comes down to tech changes that have universally tightened race cars, where Johnson always had an edge in a looser ride. “Mentally, physically, he’s sharp as a tack,’’ says Ricky. “Race cars are not designed to drive loose now, and Jimmie really excels when things are a little bit out of control. He’s comfortable at 101%, and sliding, but cars are not designed to slide anymore.’’

Jimmie cites another factor that relates to his place on his own team, in his own garage.  “One thing: You’re not going to get me to say I’ve slipped, physically or mentally. I have not slipped. I’ll say this: You look at a guy like Martin Truex, where he was not in the best equipment for the longest time, and now he is. That’s kind of the opposite of what I had, where I walked into the best equipment and things have faded as time went. Now, I want to be careful how I say best equipment and all that. Let’s just say it comes down to timing. That’s probably a better way to put it.’’

Gordon, meanwhile, is more sanguine. “If you stay in the sport long enough, rules are going to change, and change the balance of the car and the way you drive it. When Jimmie had it going, Chad’s setup really complemented Jimmie’s strengths. But look, the older you get, the harder it is.’’

The year 2020 was harder for Johnson in ways that went far beyond mediocre finishes or chasing evolution. In early July, more than three months into the pandemic, Johnson became the first NASCAR driver to test positive for COVID-19. His wife, Chani, also tested positive. That’s where it got more challenging. After Johnson’s initial positive test, he missed one race (Indianapolis), but then tested negative twice and was reinstated. “I’m still very confused as to whether I had it or not,’’ says Johnson. Chani repeatedly tested positive. “She was locked in our master bedroom,’’ says Johnson. “We would slide food up to the door, mask on, and then step away. It was an interesting position to be in, from a family perspective. Chani was asymptomatic, but you know how deadly it can be, so there was a lot of fear and concern, and just a lot of emotion.’’

As the virus withdrew from his home (although certainly not from his world), and as the end of the season has drawn nearer, Johnson has allowed himself moments of reflection and gratitude. “I had no idea I would be here,’’ he says. “I’ve been so lucky, with Chad, with Hendrick Motorsports. All I ever wanted to do was compete and drive race cars. Simple as that. Maybe win three or four races. Seven championships? No way.’’

Johnson is not done. He will shift to IndyCars, primarily on road and street courses, where his feathery touch on the throttle should be a balancing factor against drivers with far more experience. He will probably drive the occasional NASCAR race. Off the track, there’s a bucket list: The New York City Marathon (he’s already run Boston in a very respectable three hours, nine minutes, in 2019) the Leadville 100-mile mountain bike race, heli-skiing in the Alaskan mountains. “Some of those things are time-sensitive,’’ says Johnson. “But I’d also like to bring a little more work-life balance to my world.’’

For now, there is one race left to run, one more set of left turns, one last ride in the forty-eight. Some cheers, some hugs, some memories.

Then he belongs to the ages.

North Wilkesboro’s worn surface will prove challenging to drivers


NORTH WILKESBORO, N.C. — Three Cup drivers got their first chance to experience North Wilkesboro Speedway’s worn racing surface Tuesday and said tires will play a key role in the NASCAR All-Star Race there on May 21.

Chris Buescher, Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick took part in a Goodyear tire test Tuesday. That test was to continue Wednesday.

The verdict was unanimous about how important tire wear will be.

“This place has got a lot of character to it,” Reddick said. “Not a lot of grip and it’s pretty unforgiving. It’s a really fun place.”

Dillon said: “If you use up your tire too early, you’re going to really be in trouble. You really got to try to make those four tires live.”

Buescher said: “The surface here was so worn out already that we expect to be all over the place. The speeds are fairly slow just because of the amount of grip here. It’s hard to get wide open until you’re straight.”

Reddick noted the drop in speed over a short run during Tuesday’s test. That will mean a lot of off-throttle time.

“I think we were seeing a second-and-a-half falloff or so over even 50 laps and that was kind of surprising for me we didn’t have more falloff,” he said. “But, one little miscue, misstep into Turn 1 or Turn 3, you lose a second sliding up out of the groove and losing control of your car.”

“That’s with no traffic. Maybe with more traffic and everything, the falloff will be more, but certainly we’re out of control from I’d say Lap 10 on. You have to really take care of your car. … It’s really hard 30-40 laps into a run to even get wide open.”

Chris Buescher runs laps during a Goodyear tire test at North Wilkesboro Speedway, while Austin Dillon is on pit road. (Photo: Dustin Long)

One thing that stood out to Dillon was how the facility looks.

While the .625-mile racing surface remains the same since Cup last raced there in 1996, most everything else has changed.

In some cases, it is fresh red paint applied to structures but other work has been more extensive, including repaving the infield and pit road, adding lights for night racing, adding SAFER barriers, the construction of new suites in Turn 4 and new stands along the backstretch.

“It’s cool to see how much they’ve done to the track, the suites, the stands that they’re putting in,” Dillon said. “To me, the work that is going in here, we’re not just coming for one race. We’re coming here for a while. I’m excited about that.”

Drivers to watch in NASCAR Cup race at COTA


Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, has attracted an entry list that includes talent beyond that of the tour regulars.

Jordan Taylor, who is substituting in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet for injured Chase Elliott, brings a resume that includes 31 IMSA class wins, two 24 Hours of Daytona overall wins and two IMSA wins at COTA.

MORE: NBC Driver Rankings: Christopher Bell is No. 1

Jenson Button won the Formula One championship in 2009 and has five F1 starts at COTA. He is scheduled to be a driver for the NASCAR entry in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Kimi Raikkonen, entered by Trackhouse Racing as part of its Project 91 program, won the 2007 F1 championship and has eight F1 starts at the Austin track.

They will draw attention at COTA this weekend, along with these other drivers to watch:


Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 5th
  • Best seasonal finish: 2nd (Atlanta I)
  • Past at COTA: 19th and 14th in two career starts

Keselowski hasn’t been a star in road course racing, but his 2023 season has started well, and he figures to be in the mix at the front Sunday. He led the white-flag lap at Atlanta last Sunday before Joey Logano passed him for the win.

AJ Allmendinger

  • Points position: 17th
  • Best seasonal finish: 6th (Daytona 500)
  • Past at COTA: 5th and 33rd in two starts

The Dinger is a road course expert. Last year at COTA, he was involved in tight racing on the final lap with Ross Chastain and Alex Bowman before Chastain emerged with the victory.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Best seasonal finish: 3rd (Auto Club)
  • Past at COTA: Two straight top fours, including a win

Chastain lifted Trackhouse Racing’s profile by scoring his — and the team’s — first Cup victory at COTA last season. He’s not shy about participating in the last-lap bumping and thumping that often mark road course races.


Chris Buescher

  • Points position: 13th
  • Best seasonal finish: 4th (Daytona 500)
  • Past at COTA: 13th and 21st in two starts

Buescher has never led a lap at COTA and is coming off a 35th-place finish at Atlanta after being swept up in a Lap 190 crash. Although he has shown the power to run near the front this year, he has four consecutive finishes of 13th or worse.

Alex Bowman

  • Points position: 20th
  • Best seasonal finish: 3rd (Las Vegas I)
  • Past at COTA: Two straight top 10s

Bowman’s four-race run of consistent excellence (finishes of fifth, eighth, third and ninth) ended at Atlanta as he came home 14th and failed to lead a lap. At COTA, he is one of only four drivers with top-10 finishes in both races.

William Byron

  • Points position: 28th
  • Best seasonal finish: 1st (Las Vegas I, Phoenix I)
  • Past at COTA: 11th and 12th in two starts

Involvement in an accident at Atlanta ended Byron’s two-race winning streak. He’ll be looking to lead a lap at COTA for the first time.



Three Reaume Brothers Racing team members suspended by NASCAR


Three members of the Reaume Brothers Racing No. 33 Craftsman Truck Series team have been suspended for three races by NASCAR after a piece of tungsten ballast came off their truck during last Saturday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The suspensions were announced Tuesday.

Crew chief Gregory Rayl and crew members Matthew Crossman and Travis Armstrong were suspended because of the safety violation. Mason Massey is the team’s driver.

MORE: Xfinity driver Josh Williams suspended for one race

In a tweet following the announcement of the penalty, the team said it will not file an appeal. “The ballast became dislodged only after the left side ballast container had significant contact with the racing surface,” according to the statement. “We would like to be clear that there was no negligence on the part of RBR personnel.”

NASCAR also announced Tuesday that Truck Series owner/driver Cory Roper, who had been suspended indefinitely for violating the substance abuse policy, has been reinstated.

The Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series are scheduled to race this weekend at Circuit of the Americas.


Josh Williams suspended for one race after Atlanta infraction


NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Josh Williams has been suspended for one race because of his actions during last Saturday’s Xfinity race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Williams will be ineligible to participate in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. He would be able to return for the April 1 race at Richmond, Virginia.

Williams was penalized for a “behavioral” infraction, specifically disobeying a NASCAR request.

In a tweet after the suspension was announced, Williams said: “I stand behind what I did and I don’t regret any decisions I made. I stand behind NASCAR for these decisions and will continue and always support them.” He said Alex Labbe will drive the team’s No. 92 car at Circuit of the Americas this weekend.

MORE: Three Reaume Brothers Racing team members suspended

NASCAR officials ordered Williams off the track during Saturday’s race after his car was involved in an accident. Debris falling from his car prompted a caution flag, leading NASCAR to order him to park.

Instead of going to the garage area, Williams parked his car at the start-finish line and walked to pit road.

Williams was escorted to the NASCAR hauler office at the track. He waited there until the conclusion of the race and then met with officials for about 20 minutes.

MORE: NBC Power Rankings: Christopher Bell rises to the top

Section 8.8.9.I of the Xfinity Series Rule Book states that with the Damaged Vehicle Policy, NASCAR can order a car off the track: “At the discretion of the Series Managing Director, if a damaged vehicle elects not to enter pit road on the first opportunity or if a damaged vehicle exits pit road before sufficient repairs had been made and thereafter causes or extends a caution (e.g. leaking fluid, debris, etc.), then said vehicle may incur a lap(s) or time penalty or may not be permitted to return to the Race.”

Williams later admitted he had violated a rule but said he was frustrated by the NASCAR decision.

“We all work really hard and to only run ‘X’ amount of laps and then to have something like a piece of Bear Bond and put us out of the race, it’s really frustrating,” Williams said after his meeting with series officials. “Small team. We work really hard. We’ve got to make our sponsors happy, right? It doesn’t do any good sitting in the garage. It is what it is. We’ll learn from it and move on.

“I told them I was a little bit frustrated,” Williams said of NASCAR’s call, “but it was in the rule book.”