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Chad Knaus: ‘We’re better prepared’ for new Camaro model

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The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season will see Chevrolet teams competing with the new Camaro ZL1 1LE model two years after the Camaro’s debut and one year before the Next Gen car’s scheduled debut in the series.

Chad Knaus, entering his second season as crew chief on William Byron‘s No. 24 Chevrolet, addressed the new Camaro model Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive.”

“The unknown is obviously the car. That’s just going to take a little bit of time,” said Knaus, the last crew chief for a Chevrolet team to compete in the Cup Series’ Championship 4, when he and Jimmie Johnson won their seventh title in 2016.

In the Camaro’s first two years, Chevy teams have won 11 races, including four in 2018, while Ford won 29 races and Toyota won 32 races.

Another factor in the change was the problems with the ZL1’s pointed nose when it came to pushing other cars at Daytona and Talladega compared to Ford and Toyota and their flatter noses.

Knaus predicted the rollout of the new model will be “significantly different” to the Camaro’s debut in 2018.

“We’re more educated, we’re better prepared,” Knaus said. “What happened when we we brought out the new car is at the exact same time NASCAR changed the way they were inspecting the cars and employing the Hawkeye laser scanner, right? The older car, when it was designed, wasn’t really built for that. We had a little bit more leeway, we could have manipulated it let’s say just a little bit better to get some performance out of it. Well, with the restrictions that NASCAR’s put on us with the surface conformance all the way around the car, we didn’t have that ability.

“So that car was, it came out behind, does that make sense? With those rules, we weren’t able get on top of it. I do feel this car is coming out of the gate stronger. You never know that until you hit the race track, obviously. But I do feel it’s better and we’re going to be able to go out there and race a little bit better, which is great for Axalta and all our sponsors, they’re expecting that.”

The Camaro ZL1 1LE model will see its first track action Feb. 8 when teams practice at Daytona International Speedway for the Feb. 9 Busch Clash and Feb. 9 Daytona 500 qualifying.

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2019 Season in review: Chase Elliott

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Chase Elliott

CREW CHIEF: Alan Gustafson

TEAM: Hendrick Motorsports

POINTS: 10th

WINS: Three (Talladega I, Watkins Glen and Charlotte Roval). Tied his total from 2018.

LAPS LED: 601 (Most in his four full-time seasons)

TOP 5s: 11

TOP 10s: 15 (career worst in four full-time seasons)

POLES: Four, career best (Bristol I, Dover I, Watkins Glen, Talladega II)

WHAT WENT RIGHT: Earned his first superspeedway win in Cup and repeated as winner at Watkins Glen. He put on a stunning performance on the Roval when he came back to win after he plowed into the Turn 1 tire barrier in the middle of the race.

WHAT WENT WRONG: Any hopes Elliott and the No. 9 team had of topping their 2018 season came crashing down in the Round of 8. Elliott finished 32nd or worse in all three races, capping it off with a wreck in the final elimination race on Lap 165. After his Roval win, he finished in the top five once, at Kansas Speedway in the Round of 12 when he capitalized on a late wreck to finish second.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2020: 2020 will be the last season Elliott has Jimmie Johnson as a full-time teammate. It will be interesting to see how Elliott transitions into a leadership role as he’ll be the most tenured Hendrick driver once 2021 arrives.

Friday 5: Could Jimmie Johnson score Most Popular Driver award in 2020?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It would be easy for some to expect that Chase Elliott’s second consecutive NMPA Most Popular Driver award marks the early stages of a streak that could rival, if not top, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s record run of 15 consecutive titles.

But that would be overlooking some challenges Elliott will face.

One could come from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, who said 2020 will be his last full-time Cup season.

That gives him a final chance to win one of the few honors he’s never captured in his NASCAR career.

Johnson is the only seven-time champion not to win the Most Popular Driver award. Dale Earnhardt was awarded the honor posthumously in 2001. Richard Petty won it eight times, the last time in 1978.

If he couldn’t win an eighth championship, would there be a better sendoff for Johnson than to win the sport’s most popular driver award?

“There’s no award that Jimmie could or will ever win that he doesn’t deserve,” Elliott said Thursday night after the NASCAR Awards show at the Music City Center. “Whatever next year brings, I’m looking forward to spending it with him. It’s been an honor to be his teammate. If he gets the (most popular driver) honor next year, that’s great and I’ll be happy for him. There’s no doubt that he deserves it. You do what he’s done in this sport, my opinion, you can do whatever you want. Pulling for him. I’d love to see him get eight (championships). I’d also love to get one.

“Don’t write him off yet because I think he’s pretty fired up, and I could see him having a big year next year.”

Johnson had his fans early in his career but his success turned many off, who tired of the Californian winning so often.

Things changed before the 2016 championship race in Miami as Johnson prepared to go for his record-tying seventh title. He saw it as he went around the track in a pickup during driver intros.

“I usually get flipped off a lot,” Johnson said that day after winning his seventh title. “They shoot me the bird everywhere we are, every state, everywhere we go. I kept looking up and seeing hands in the air thinking they’re shooting me the bird again. It was actually seven. All the way around the race track everyone was holding up seven, and it just gave me goosebumps, like wow, what an interesting shift in things.”

Another key challenger for Elliott for Most Popular Driver is two-time champion Kyle Busch.

Yes, that is correct.

Busch finished second to Elliott in the voting for Most Popular Driver award this year.

It once seemed impossible that Busch would finish in the top five in any type of most popular driver voting, but his Rowdy Nation fan base continues to grow.

If not next year for Busch, there’s the chance his fan base could carry him to a Most Popular Driver award sometime in the future.

Wouldn’t that be something?

 

2. Gut-wrenching pain

The most emotional moment of Thursday’s awards show came when Kyle Busch turned to wife Samantha to thank her for her support and also console her for the multiple failures this year in trying for a second child.

The couple went through in-vitro fertilization to have son Brexton in 2015. They used that experience to create the Bundle of Joy fund to provide money to infertile couples.

Samantha Busch announced in Nov. 2018 that she was pregnant with their second child only to suffer a miscarriage eight days later.

Busch’s voice quivered as he revealed on stage the pain he and his wife went through this year.

“I read quote recently that hit home for me,” Busch said to Samantha. “It said: “The strongest people are not those that show strength in front of the world but those who fight and win battles that others don’t know anything about. I’m right here with you knowing how hard it has been to go through multiple … yes multiple failed attempts of (in-vitro fertilization) this year.

“To walk around and try to face people week after week is difficult for me always knowing in the back of my mind how helpless I feel in life knowing how much I wanted to answer your prayers and be able to give you a gift of our baby girl.”

Busch said he had talked briefly to his wife ahead of time about revealing their loss publicly.

“I think there was a lot of naysay and negative discussions about what my emotions where and who I was in the playoffs and things like that,” Busch said after Thursday’s ceremony. “Not everybody knows exactly what is going on behind the scenes. Focus on your own.”

Busch said he never felt the devastation from the miscarriages impacted his performance.

“There were certain times, maybe, in meetings and things like that that I wouldn’t say it affected but it obviously came across my mind,” he said. “As far as it comes to the race track, when I put my helmet on, I feel like I can zero that out and do a really good job of focusing what the task at hand is.”

 

3. Nashville momentum?

The fan reception in Nashville has those in the sport encouraged that this week can build momentum to have a race at Fairgrounds Speedway.

Jerry Caldwell, executive vice president and general manager of Bristol Motor Speedway, continues to lead the efforts for Speedway Motorsports to return NASCAR racing to the historic track.

But to do so, Caldwell and SMI officials will have to navigate through the city’s politics from the mayor’s office to the metro council and the fair board.

“We understand that it’s a new administration,” Caldwell told NBC Sports about Mayor John Cooper, who was sworn into office in late September. “We’re encouraged with the conversations that we’ve had with them and look forward to continuing those. I think we all see a bright future there.

“We all see that there’s a ton of potential at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway to create something that the city can be proud of, race fans can embrace and love, we can protect the heritage and celebrate that but also turn it into a venue that can be used 365 days a year.”

With NASCAR President Steve Phelps’ self-imposed deadline of April 1 to announce the 2021 Cup schedule, it would seem highly unlikely that negotiations can be completed in time for the track to be added to the schedule by then. Caldwell declined to speculate on timing “because we’re still in some conversations with the city to figure that out because there are a lot of moving pieces.”

Chase Elliott hopes this week shows city leaders the value of what a NASCAR race at Fairgrounds Speedway could be.

“Hopefully this sparks something in the city that allows the right people to make the right moves to come and race up here,” Elliott said, “because this place is too perfect not to.”

 

4. New cars for Bubba Wallace

Brian Moffitt, chief executive officer for Richard Petty Motorsports, says the team plans to have some sponsorship news in January. With the additional funding, the team will add new cars to its fleet for Bubba Wallace.

Even with the upcoming news, Moffitt said the team will still have some races available for sponsorships for the upcoming season.

Moffitt has high hopes entering the 2020 season.

“We’re going to be better right out of the gate this year in 2020,” Moffitt told NBC Sports. “We’re going to be right there with our partner (Richard Childress Racing) working with them a lot closer.”

Moffitt said the team anticipates having about half a dozen new cars by the first quarter of the season.

“We are going to have a lot newer equipment than we started (2019) with,” Moffitt said.

The challenge with that is that all the equipment will be outdated by the end of the season with the Next Gen car debuting in 2021.

“It’s still important in 2020,” Moffitt said. “We still have to perform for our partners. We want to be up there. It will help you prepare for 2021 coming out of the gate.”

Moffitt said the team also plans to add engineers and mechanics this season.

“We’re going to have some track engineers we haven’t had,” Moffitt said.

Wallace finished 28th in points last year, matching his finish in the points in 2018 as a rookie.

 

5. Pit road woes

Kurt Busch said a key area of improvement for his Chip Ganassi Racing team will be its performance on pit road. Busch said the team lost 120 spots on pit road.

“You can’t do that,” he said. “You’ve got to try to break even. You’re supposed to have a plus on pit road as far as spots gained. That’s where you’re going to see Gibbs … all those guys at Gibbs gained spots on pit road. We can’t lose that many spots at Ganassi on pit road.”

Losing spots on pit road can be related to when a crew chief calls in the driver to pit road, how quickly the driver goes down pit road without speeding and how well the pit crew performs.

“It just seemed like one pit road penalty led to a bad restart, a bad restart led to now the pit crew has to pick it up and get those spots back,” Busch said.

He noted how his season mirrored another Chevrolet driver.

“Our season was real similar to Alex Bowman,” said Busch, whose one win last season came in July at Kentucky. “Alex Bowman won at Chicago (in June) and then they faded and they were right with us in points all the way through the playoffs.

“Some of it was team. Some of it was me overdriving. Some of it was pit crew mistakes. The Camaro was a bit behind that we saw now at the end of the year with all those Toyotas in the championship 4.”

Kyle Larson says his dirt track racing will be key to next contract

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Kyle Larson says being allowed to race on dirt tracks will play a key role in which Cup team he competes for after the 2020 season.

Larson’s contract expires after next season. While social media has put him in the No. 48 car when Jimmie Johnson completes his final full-time season next year, there is no guarantee he’ll leave Chip Ganassi Racing for Hendrick Motorsports.

“I enjoy what I’m doing with Chip right now,” Larson said Wednesday in a media session a day before the NASCAR Awards Show (8 p.m. ET Thursday on NBCSN). “Obviously I’m a free agent, I guess, at the end of the year. I guess I’m excited just to hear what people have to say.

“If I do end up with Chip I’ll be perfectly happy with that. He gave me my first shot. I’ve got a great relationship with him and the team. More than anything, I just look forward to racing race cars. I haven’t really thought too much about (what team he’ll race for after 2020). Obviously, I’ve been reading everything everybody else has too. It’s cool to see your name in the mix for stuff like that, but we also have to focus on the on-track performance next year.”

Larson is considered among of the top free agents in a loaded class that includes Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones and Alex Bowman, among many whose contracts expire after the 2020 season. Larson finished a career-high sixth in points this past season. He has made the playoffs four consecutive years. 

Larson said that Ganassi’s willingness to let him race sprint and midget cars during the NASCAR season “definitely” gives Ganassi an edge over other teams.

“Wherever I end up, that is going to be priority for me is still being able to race quite a bit on dirt tracks,” Larson said. “I think teams understand that is what I love. We’ll see. I think Chip definitely continuing to let me run and then also letting me run more than I have in the last few years has been awesome.”

Larson’s agreement with Ganassi allows Larson to run 25 dirt track races during the NASCAR season. Ganassi’s rule is that Larson can’t drive a sprint or midget car 24 hours before he is to be in a Cup car but Ganassi waived that rule in 2017, allowing Larson to run in the Knoxville Nationals the night before the Cup race at Michigan. Larson finished second in the Knoxville Nationals and won the Cup race at Michigan the next day.

An issue for Hendrick Motorsports could be Larson’s desire to race on dirt tracks. Hendrick used to allow Kasey Kahne to run on dirt tracks but then took those privileges away after an accident Kahne had. Hendrick permitted Kahne to race those cars more than two years later.

Larson also said that he is grateful to Ganassi for hiring him when others didn’t pay much attention to the rising star.

“I want to do the best job I can while I’m with Chip and if I continue to be with Chip,” Larson said. “He took me from nobody, nobody ever heard of me or even when they started to hear about me wouldn’t give me a shot. I”m very loyal and thankful for that. I would love to be with Chip for the rest of my career if I could.”

Ryan: A fitting opening farewell for Jimmie Johnson, the family man

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CONCORD, N.C. – The midafternoon rays poured through the plate glass picture windows, and illumination suddenly came for this unusually late green flag on a momentous announcement befitting a much earlier timeslot.

Now it made sense: The backdrop of a gorgeous November sunset stretched across the sprawling campus of Hendrick Motorsports was the perfect setting to discuss the dusk of Jimmie Johnson’s career.

Except that wasn’t the reason for holding this opening farewell at the curious start time of 4 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon.

This wasn’t about an ending. The big clue in timing was at the beginning of the news conference to announce the final chapter of perhaps the greatest career in NASCAR history.

FRIDAY 5: Johnson’s final Cup season also marks final tribute to a friend

“Girls, please join us,” host Winston Kelley called out to Johnson’s daughters, Genevieve and Lydia, who scrambled up the stage in their floral and pink dresses.

“On behalf of our entire family, we would like to thank you for all being here,” Genevieve confidently told the crowd. “Today is a very special announcement. We would like to ask Mr. Hendrick of Hendrick Motorsports and the driver of the No. 48 Ally Chevrolet, seven-time NASCAR champion and our dad, Jimmie Johnson, to please join us on the stage.”

To explain his full-time departure from NASCAR’s premier circuit in 2020, Jimmie Johnson scheduled a news conference at 4 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon because his kids had tests that couldn’t be rescheduled to pull them out of school.

Given their impact on his life-changing decision, he wanted them present. Genevieve, 9, was still “processing the news,” and Lydia, 6, barely feigned interest when dad tried to show her a video Wednesday morning that he soon would post to social media to tell the world.

“Breakfast is a very important part of the day, a focal point for my kids,” Johnson said with a chuckle. “Lydia was midway through her pancakes and could not be bothered and wanted me to pass the butter.”

It turns out Johnson’s youngest can be a tough nut to crack just like the seven-time champion sometimes can be, and Thursday was the most quintessential of Jimmie Johnson news conferences.

Over the course of 45 minutes, there was hardly an ounce of sentimentality about his vast accomplishments. With the exception of a brief quaver and a couple of tears shed at team owner Rick Hendrick’s closing remarks, there was no discernible emotion.

“I’m just very, very thankful for relationships that I’ve built in this sport,” Johnson, 44, said in wrapping up. “My mind is running wild on me right now, and I’m trying not to cry.

That was as close as he got.


Complete and cool detachment, total focus under duress and mental toughness always have been overlooked hallmarks of Johnson’s greatness. They also burn brightly during interviews focusing solely on his life and a career that has featured 83 wins in NASCAR’s premier series and an unprecedented five consecutive championships.

Away from the track, it also includes a 2019 Boston Marathon appearance, thousands of miles in competitive cycling and more than $11.5 million donated through his foundation to schools, hospitals and charities that focus on children in need.

But Johnson rarely reflects publicly in meaningful ways on all that he’s done.

You always have to look harder (because humility keeps him from tipping his hand) to fully understand what drives this once-in-a-generation athlete who might have won the Tour de France instead of the Daytona 500 if he’d put his mind to it.

But once you do, it all makes sense.

“That’s the one thing that people don’t realize about Jimmie,” said longtime crew chief Chad Knaus, who guided Johnson to all his championships while also becoming a best friend. “And I’ve been able to witness it firsthand. When he puts his mind to something, he sets the goals, and he achieves them. Every one of us wants to go and lose weight. Every one of us wants to eat better. And we all halfheartedly attempt to make those goals and actually complete them. He just does it. He’s a pretty special person from that standpoint.”

It’s perhaps the primary reason he has been so wildly successful and why he was so laser-focused Thursday on his performance in his 19th and final season in 2020. He hardly mentioned his family after the introduction even when pressed for how they had influenced his decision.

“I knew that at some point, that was really going to really weigh on me to want to be around (family) a lot more,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to believe they are 9 and 6 now, and that much time has elapsed, but I just have a fire in me to push for that and stay at the track.

“I still have that fire, and I am coming back next year. Next year is not a mail-it-in year. It’s a year we are going to win races and compete for a championship. So I know I can give what I need to this team for another year. After that, I’m ready to have some time back on my side and just have a better balance in life.”

There were glimpses of that balance after Thursday’s program when he spent 20 minutes taking photos with close friends and family.

The first thing he tweeted Friday morning was a collage of his daughters and his wife, Chandra, underscoring their importance in throttling back.

Knaus can relate after becoming a first-time father himself last year to Kipling.

“I would give up every championship and every race win for my son,” Knaus said. “Anybody that has children can identify with that. I never knew the impact that Kipling was going to have on me.

“For Jimmie to have those same emotions for two girls, I can’t even begin to imagine how he’s lasted as long as he has. It’s pretty remarkable, but he’s going to be a great dad. They’re going to have somebody to come home crying to when they have a bad day at school, and he’s going to be there. He’s not going to be necessarily in New Hampshire, Atlanta, Pocono, where he’s not there to share it with them.”

Crew chief Cliff Daniels said Johnson had indicated he needed to step back because he virtually would have no other way to know if his girls needed him more.

“It’s interesting how grateful he has been the whole time that his girls and Chani have supported him no matter what and openly told him as long as he wants to keep driving, they will support him,” Daniels said. “To have that support, I almost think made him a little more introspective to say ‘OK, am I doing the right thing to continue to require this sort of patience and sacrifice from them?’

“I know it is a factor, and he just wants to be at a place in his life where he can enjoy his family, enjoy his career and take a breath.”

Chandra Johnson smiles during the news conference for her husband, Jimmie Johnson (AP Photo/Bob Leverone).

As usual with Johnson, you don’t get nearly as much out of him about himself.

He is always accommodating and among the most well-spoken NASCAR drivers for delivering big-picture quotes that can be sharply critical.

He falls into opacity when asked to turn the lens inward, leaning back on a bevy of buzzwords (“headspace”, or just “space”, is often popular) to explain himself in often unintentionally cryptic ways.

It’s better to ask those who know him best about the decision to end his career.

Daniels was given the news in a Tuesday night dinner at Haberdish, a Southern comfort food restaurant in Charlotte’s NoDa arts district (near a gallery owned by his wife).

Over two to three hours of conversation, Daniels could tell Johnson was at peace with the decision after consecutive winless seasons but no less inspired to end on a high note after missing the playoffs for the first time in 2019.

“It was a completely refreshing conversation,” Daniels said. “It wasn’t a shocking surprise. … To know he is still very positive about himself really means a lot to me because I know we’re going to see that on the racetrack next year. We’re going to see a guy who’s energized, excited, kind of rejuvenated to really go out on top, and I think he’s more than capable.”

Jeff Gordon, who hand-picked Johnson as the driver of Hendrick’s No. 48 after being impressed in an Xfinity race nearly 20 years ago, said his former protegé already had made up his mind about full-time retirement when they recently met for coffee … and likely long before that.

“Heck, I can remember when I was retiring (in 2015), hearing just a few questions that maybe he asked about the process and what made me decide that was the time,” Gordon said. “But the last couple of weeks, he and I got together, and it was more us just bouncing thoughts and ideas as friends.”

So what is next after 2020?

Probably something in racing. There are hints about sports cars (Johnson has raced in but has yet to win the Rolex 24) and IndyCar races on street and road courses. The World of Outlaws tweeted an invite to run a sprint car.

“He’s very committed and nothing will stop him, so who knows,” Gordon said of Johnson. “I got to compete against him in basically the same equipment, and I can tell you I’ve never raced with anybody better. That’s why I respect him so much. I’ll just second what a lot of people have been saying is the way he’s done it. To do it with class, style, his own way. I appreciate that.”

“I looked up to other drivers and either tried to emulate them or tried to beat them and hopefully force them to step their game up. I hope that I did that for others, but I can tell you 100% Jimmie did that for me and others, I’m sure. I thought that I had things figured out, and then Jimmie Johnson comes along and starts beating me on a regular basis. It forced me to look within myself and go, ‘OK, what am I not doing? What more can I do?’ He elevated my game.”


Johnson always has tried to downplay that legacy and did so again Thursday by nothing he’s “not very smart.” He unfailingly has presented himself for nearly 20 years as just the simple son of a heavy machinery operator and a school bus driver from a lower-middle class trailer park in El Cajon, California.

Such a backstory should have resonated more with NASCAR’s blue-collar fan base, which mostly seems to overlook his fun-loving side that was baked in the freewheeling Southern California sun.

Car owner Rick Hendrick was right to call Johnson “the perfect driver” as far as talent, sponsor relations and physical commitment. “You never had to make an excuse for Jimmie Johnson,” Hendrick said. “He was always on his mark. He never embarrassed anybody. He is a role model and an athlete that I’ve never seen in any kind of sport.”

But his driver also is no saint, and he knows how to have fun. He celebrated his first championship with an ill-advised and alcohol-drenched surfing stunt atop a golf cart at a charity tournament, resulting in a tumble and a broken wrist.

On an entryway table Thursday, Johnson offered a media gift – 50 ml glass bottles of Patron Silver – that was a nod to an upstanding seven-time champion who also favored tequila shots with his team members in an anteroom at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas — an annual tradition they started during NASCAR Champion’s Week.

Jimmie Johnson’s gift for those attending his news conference Thursday (AP Photo/Bob Leverone).

But Johnson always has resisted — not on purpose, mind you, it’s just the way he’s wired to be reserved and humble on camera — the attempts to jam him into the boxes that conveniently would explain how a relative unknown showed up in 2002 and effortlessly outran heralded teammate Gordon to reach NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore (albeit in the Teddy Roosevelt position).

It’s made it more difficult to appreciate how great Johnson is

When he is inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2024, Johnson will take his rightful place alongside Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty. He is their equal in on-track titles and as an off-track ambassador.

The comparisons stop there, though. Johnson is extremely well-liked among his peers but never has been labeled as the Mr. Congeniality of Petty or having the John Wayne swagger of Earnhardt.

This is more an indictment of us than him. Johnson always has compartmentalized his feelings, but he also has done it with dignity and earnestness that sometimes is mischaracterized as robotic and vanilla.

In a racing series that has celebrated bad guys, he frequently has been criticized for just being too … good.

“On the track, off the track; I mean I think sometimes people didn’t respect him because he was too perfect,” Hendrick said. “You know, that he didn’t have that big edge. But he could win and do it like that and be a gentleman and race people clean and ever had any problems. And so when history looks back at him, they’ll say that this guy was an unbelievable athlete (and) father, and he and Chani give so much away

“In every box that you check in life (like) what you do with kids, how you raise your family, and you’re a champion. And every sponsor that he’s had, they love him to death. I just think the stats speak for themselves. But people are going to remember the man, Jimmie Johnson.”

And soon he’ll be just the family man.

With much more time to enjoy the sunsets with his girls.