The Short List: Jimmie Johnson finalizing NASCAR legacy

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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.