“One Final Time” could have been translated to “First In Class” for Jimmie Johnson — the fitting title of the closing act for an all-time good guy in NASCAR.
In what might be the final start of his illustrious Cup Series career, the seven-time series champion finished fifth Sunday at Phoenix Raceway — directly behind the Championship 4 of teammate Chase Elliott, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin.
But his oldest daughter, Genevieve, helped explain on pit lane afterward why he still was victorious.
“She said, ‘Daddy, I think you won,” Johnson said. “I said, no, I finished fifth. She said, ‘No, the first four cars were in the championship and you beat everybody else.’ She brought it to my attention and had her own version of my winning, which I appreciated.
THE SHORT LIST: Jimmie Johnson finalizes his legacy
“Just a good competitive day. I could see (Hamlin) up there and was slowly catching him but just kind of ran out of laps. It was nice to keep my eyes forward and have a great car and race that hard all day long.”
Johnson spent a while savoring the aftermath of his fifth top five of the season in the 686 start of his Cup career.
He gently door-slammed Elliott’s No. 9 Chevrolet on the cooldown lap and then came around for another high-five through their driver-side windows. He shared a three-way group hug with Elliott and car owner Rick Hendrick (“that’s the first time I’ve seen Rick in person since March; there was a lot going on there in one moment for all three of us.”).
After completing his media center obligations, Johnson then rolled out a black ice chest that was filled with blue cans of Bud Light. In a throwback to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s celebration after his last Cup start three years ago, Johnson began tossing cans to crew chief Cliff Daniels and the rest of his No. 48 Chevy crew members.
He shared a poignant beer toast and some conversation with former crew chief Chad Knaus, whom Johnson had atop the pit box for 81 victories and seven championships from 2002-18.
When he rolled off the track into the pits, Johnson gave a high five to every crew member he saw as a makeshift receiving line formed along the wall.
The sign of respect was appreciated despite a lost season. Johnson ends his full-time career amid a 131-race winless streak. He tied a career worst by finishing 18th in the points standings for the second consecutive season, and he also missed the playoffs after being forced out of the Brickyard 400 because of a positive test for COVID-19 (which he now questions).
“I would say I thought I hit bottom a few times, and there was a bottom a little lower than what I envisioned,” Johnson said about 2020. “I felt like on track there was mistakes that I made, and we had issues, times where the team made mistakes, had bad luck on track, supposedly had COVID and missed the Brickyard 400. There were just many lows that kept rolling. When I thought that was it, there was another low.
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) November 9, 2020
“I just had to figure out how to put a smile on my face, what was important to me and what 2020 was going to be like, regardless of the way things took place on the track. I really hit that stride. It doesn’t mean I didn’t pout from time to time because performance on track really sets your mood for the week, but I found a way to smile and work through it and finish strong.”
Johnson’s goodbye was one of many Sunday.
But the focus naturally was on Johnson and honoring his Hall of Fame legacy.
Though he would lead four laps during a green-flag pit cycle in Stage 2, Johnson already had been in first laps before the green flag. He took the point on the pace laps (just as he had during the season-opening Daytona 500) for a while, waving to the limited-capacity crowd of less than 10,000 at Phoenix.
It was one of many ways the prerace festivities revolved around the El Cajon, Calif., native, whose Twitter feed was filled with video vignettes and remembrances. At one point, Johnson was surrounded at one point on the grid by peers Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski — all wearing black “One Final Time” hats, a nod to the #OneFinalTime hashtag that Johnson has been using.
He also was honored individually on the driver introduction stage before the four championship contenders were recognized. Before climbing into his No. 48 Camaro for the last time, Johnson also shared a few moments with his wife, Chandra, and his daughters, Genevieve and Lydia.
After a season of limited crowds and infield access because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Johnson hadn’t had his family at the track since the March 1 race at Fontana, California, until NASCAR opened up access for guests at the season finale Sunday.
“That was everything,” Johnson said. “To have them a part of this is something I’ve really, really hoped could happen. Very thankful I was able to have them here.”
He was able to have even more support in his own open-air hospitality section– replete with couches, cornhole, high-top tables and flat-screen TVs — just outside the Turn 1 catchfence. After the race, Johnson skipped a burnout in favor of a deliberate drive-by of “the big tent full of friends watching.
“I was able to put together an area here for my friends and family to come out and join,” Johnson told NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr. during the prerace show. “Obviously this year is much different than we anticipated. We’re supposed to have a much larger invite list and bring friends in from far and wide. As things were condensed, we still have a nice footprint and certainly have some friends out here to enjoy the special day.”
Last team meeting. Have missed the camaraderie that comes from having these on the truck but the heart of this team is on this call. pic.twitter.com/gsTRzy8JAz
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) November 8, 2020
After the interview, Johnson was surprised by a video tribute from car owner Rick Hendrick, who announced he would donate $50,000 to the driver’s foundation.
It was among many feel good moments for Johnson, who soaked in the moment with a sense of elation mixed with calm and peace. He had “a huge smile” walking onto the grid while reflecting on 19 seasons of hard work and the people who helped him excel.
“I’d say this time last year was the toughest (emotionally) for me because I knew in my head what my decision was, and it was time to sit down with Mr. Hendrick and really say it out loud for the first few times,” said Johnson, who officially announced 2020 as his final season during a Nov. 21, 2019 news conference at Hendrick Motorsports. “I reflect back a year ago, and it was much more difficult then. I’ve had a very interesting year as we all have in 2020. But I really have a full heart. I’m so thankful for the journey.”
Johnson won’t have to wait long to begin the next chapter. He will be testing Tuesday at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in his No. 48 Dallara-Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, which will field Johnson in 13 of 17 road and street course races next season in the NTT IndyCar Series (Johnson tested last week at Barber Motorsports Park).
But he also told Earnhardt he wouldn’t rule out running a NASCAR Cup or Xfinity race in the future.
“I’m really open to it,” Johnson said. “I want to step away from full-time NASCAR racing to just have more time and really embrace life and live life and be more present. I know I still need to compete. That’s who I am and how I’m wired.
“If the right situation comes along, I’m open to it, and I certainly look forward to being back in the garage area.”
When he returns, it certainly will be to a different place now that Elliott, 24, has won the championship and seems poised to take the mantle left by Johnson.
“To share a moment like that in Jimmie’s last race and to win and to lock the championship, those are moments you can only dream of,” said Elliott, who had to forfeit a first-place starting spot and drop to the rear after three prerace inspection failures. “And this is a dream. I’m just hoping I don’t ever wake up.”
Johnson seemed equally happy to be sharing it, saying what he would remember most about his final start was “Chase Elliott won his first championship. I’m so happy for that guy. Great friend, great family. I’ve been friends with his mom and dad for a lot of years. I can recall going snowboarding with Bill out in Colorado and Chase was maybe 8 years old, something like that, on skis, super quiet, wouldn’t say much.
“To watch him grow up and to be around him and to give him some advice from time to time has really been meaningful for me. Today I think more about him winning a championship more than anything is pretty awesome.”
He could take a little credit for having played a small role. When he heard that Elliott would start from the back, Johnson texted Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson with a reminder that he’d done the same in his final championship four years ago.
“Of the championships I’ve won, coming from the back, I had less nervous energy in my body when I took the green flag and it was very easy what I needed to do,” Johnson said. “I shared that with him, and he smiled and he said, I hope that’s how it goes today. And it did.
“We didn’t think of it as a passing of the torch. He doesn’t need my help. He’s plenty good on his own.”