Jimmie Johnson

What drivers said after Brickyard 400

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Kevin Harvick – winner: “We knew (Denny Hamlin) was gonna be really close on tires and (crew chief) Rodney (Childers) told me on the radio he said, ‘Just make sure you keep the pressure on him,’ and that was all the pressure I could give.  Those guys do a really good job.”

(HOW TOUGH WAS THE BATTLE TO STAY OUT FRONT?  YOU MADE ONE DARING MOVE WHERE YOU WENT TO THE GRASS TO TRY TO GET THE LEAD.) “I didn’t have anymore room. That was for sure, but it’s the Brickyard. This is what i grew up wanting to do as a kid, win at the Brickyard and to be able to come here and have won for the third time is something that I could have never dreamed of.  I want to say hi to my family at home. I know (his son) Keelan will be jacked up. (Daughter) Piper is probably asleep. If not, hello. But just really, really proud of all these guys on this team.”

Matt Kenseth – finished second: “It was a great day for the 42 team today. It’s always nice to be up front and be in contention late in the race. (crew chief) Chad (Johnston )did a great job on the box with his calls today. We had a really good strategy and the best tires coming to the end of the race, lining up fourth behind the leader late in the race, but just couldn’t get it done to take the lead. I tried everything to get to the front, but just didn’t have quite enough to get around the (Harvick). If we had gotten to the lead though, I know we would have been hard to beat. All in all, though, a great race for us. It felt good to run up front and was a confidence booster for all of us. Looking forward to getting to Kentucky and carrying that momentum forward.”

Aric Almirola – finished third: “We had such a great Smithfield Ford Mustang, but we kept having to get off-sequence on our pit strategy because we kept having tires come apart. They’d start to come apart and they would vibrate and shake so bad that I could hardly see where I was going, so we kept having to pit for that and it kept messing us up on our strategy and getting us off-sequence, but fortunately there at the end the caution came out when we needed it to and things finally went our way and we knocked out another top five, so just really proud of all the guys on this team. We’re doing such a good job of being consistent. We’re bringing great race cars and we’re being really consistent running up front, so just really proud of this team and just want to keep it going. It’s fun to run up front like that.”

Brad Keselowski – finished fourth: “I think we were kind of up and down. We started ninth or 10th and just kind of hung around sixth or seventh and couldn’t quite make the pass. Our car was really, really fast in clean air, but I couldn’t run in traffic. We’d run up to cars and get stopped and would kind of ride. Then we started to see the tire issues and tried to be really smart about that and try not to beat ourselves, keep tires on the car. Of course, every time we pitted to put tires on the car we’d cycle to the back, but we were just really mindful to not beat ourselves and that paid off. It gave us a good finish. If I’d have had clean air all day and not had to worry about the tires, we were as good as anybody, but worrying about the tires and not being spectacular in dirty air we kind of had to play it straight with the way it was and ended up with a top five and a fourth-place finish. We’ll take that and move forward.”

Cole Custer – finished fifth: “It is awesome to have all of SHR running well here at Indy. It is Tony’s (Stewart) backyard so it is a huge race for us. For us, our team, this package has been exactly the opposite of what I am used to driving. For it to all come together today means a lot. Thanks to all the guys at SHR for bringing great race cars. HaasTooling.com went national this week, so check them out. I am psyched. I am really happy we finally had it all come together.”

(Why did it come together at Indianapolis?) “I think it is just that I am getting better with the cars and knowing what to expect when we go to the track and getting better at what to bring in the cars to the track. It is a work in progress and having no practice doesn’t help that. I think it is all starting to come to us.”

Kyle Busch – finished sixth: “We just kept getting off on pit strategy with the Skittles America Mix Camry. We had a valve stem come off the left rear (tire) on a stop and that put us in the back. Then we had vibrations at various points throughout the race with different sets of tires so we had to stay on top of that and make sure we changed those. Each time, that would put us on the back. I struggled to pass anybody most of the day, but somehow got spots on restarts. I was able to salvage a sixth-place finish and will head to Kentucky next week.”

Michael McDowell – finished seventh: “Another great finish for us. Another solid top 10.  t’s such a big run for us. I’m so proud of everybody at Front Row (Motorsports) and (owner) Bob Jenkins for giving me this opportunity. It’s taken so long to be this competitive and I’m so thankful to have the opportunity.  To have CarParts.com and Power Stop and Love’s Travel Stops and FR8 Auctions and all our partners throughout the year, Speedco — so many great people that make this possible and we’re doing it  We’re doing it every week. We’re definitely way more competitive than we’ve ever been and it’s a lot of fun.”

Tyler Reddick – finished eighth: “We had a great No. 8 Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen Chevrolet when we could run in clean air and record some good lap times, but unfortunately we struggled in dirty air, like a lot of our competitors today. Any time we were battling someone side by side or from behind them, our car would just build way too tight and make it tough to gain or hold track position. We just had an up-and-down day, falling back early and then playing some strategy to stay out to start Stage 3 from the fifth spot.

“Once the race restarted for Stage 3, we were able to hold on to that position for a while before having to make our final green flag stop of the day. Unfortunately, a yellow came our when our pit stops were cycling through, trapping us a lap down and forcing us to take the wave-around and get shuffled back in traffic again. When that final yellow flag came out and set us up for a green-white-checkered finish, my crew chief Randall Burnett made the call to come in for four fresh tires and put us 16th for the restart. I was able to capitalize on the final restart with fresher tires and race up to eighth place, which is a great finish for our day. We had to grind it out today, but it turned out in our favor.”

Bubba Wallace – finished ninth: “I guess it is good to be frustrated when you finish in the ninth place. All-in-all, it was a good day for this No. 43 World Wide Technology (WWT) Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE. It was fast. We just did not have the handling underneath us. It was good down the straightaways. It did not want to turn very well – specially behind traffic. One of the more frustrating days being behind cars and just trying to maneuver. So, coming out of there with a top-10 finish is good momentum going to the Kentucky Speedway – another good track for us. We will continue the good vibes and keep staying on Jerry (Baxter, crew chief) to produce good finishes for us.”

Kurt Busch – finished 13th: “This was an Indy race to forget today. We had to make too many unscheduled returns to pit road, which cost us a lot of track position. We just had an unbelievably tight handling Monster Energy Camaro in traffic, I just could cut through the corners to make any passes. Obviously I was hoping for better results for (start) No. 700 today.”

Ty Dillon – finished 14th: “A nice 14th-place finish at Indy for our GEICO Military team. It was a crazy one, but overall, it was a really solid day. From start to finish, we had speed and these are the types of cars that I knew we could bring to the track that would make a difference. I’m very proud of (crew chief) Matt (Borland) and all of my Germain Racing guys for their hard work. To finish the first two stages in 11th and 12th and then finish the race in 14th is a great day for our program. This is our fourth top-15 finish of the season and we are going to keep stacking those up. We’ll go get them in Kentucky and keep this momentum rolling.”

John Hunter Nemechek – finished 15th: “It was a hard-fought day for our No. 38 Fire Alarm Services, Inc. Ford Mustang. We were tight in traffic to start and it was difficult to keep the car turning when I was behind another car. (cew chief) Seth (Barbour) and the crew made some good adjustments throughout the day that helped our handling a lot. We got caught up there at the end, but still had a decent top-15 day.”

Austin Dillon – finished 18th: “We had a really strong Dow Salutes Veterans Chevrolet today at the Brickyard and it was fun to be able to earn stage points in Stages 1 and 2 and lead laps. Our Chevy was handling really well all day so we really only needed to make small adjustments throughout the race. Justin Alexander made great calls to help us get track position. Clean air is huge. We made the decision to stay out when the caution flag was displayed at the end of Stage 3. That put us in a great position for a two-lap shootout to the checkered flag. We were racing for sixth but tangled in Turn 4 coming to the checkers and ended up backing into the wall. Definitely not the finish we wanted or deserved today, but I’m proud of our effort. We had a lot of positives with earning stage points and leading laps.”

Daniel Suarez – finished 20th: “I thought the balance of our Certified Used Vehicles Toyota was good today and we did a good job of keeping up with the track. One thing we know we have to do is keep working to find more speed. The team did a good job dealing with a couple of issues we had, one with the power steering that took a couple of extra stops to fix. We worked hard and got a top 20 out of it, but we also know we are better than that and we know the areas we need to keep working on. We’ll just keep working hard on getting better and if we keep working hard, we will. We all want this.”

William Byron – finished 27th: “Our Liberty University Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE was super-fast today. It just sucks because we have had a lot of these things happen this year. It’s not a fault of anyone, it just happens and it’s a bummer for sure. We’ve had fast cars and it feels like we always have bad luck when we do. That’s what hurts even more. We just need to bring that same speed to Kentucky and hopefully we won’t have any issues there. To be leading the race like that and have a tire issue is, I guess, a good way to go out. We’ll just see what we can do in Kentucky.”

Denny Hamlin – finished 28th: “It’s just tough. I hate it for the FedEx team. We didn’t do what we needed to do and it didn’t work out for us today. I had a fast car obviously and was stretching it out there but wasn’t pushing right front at all. It’s kind of roulette if you’re going to get one that will stay together or not and mine didn’t. You saw the end result. These big races — things don’t go my way all the time. We’re still going to go next week and try to win the next one. We’ll do all we can.”

Alex Bowman – finished 30th: “I wish we could have some luck here in Indy. Every time we come here, something happens. We had a pretty decent car, but through a series of events it just got worse. We suffered a tire issue right before we made a green flag stop, which ended our day. I hate it for my guys and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports because they have been putting in a ton of hours both at track and at the shop. We will move on to Kentucky and I hope we bring some luck with us.”

Erik Jones – finished 33rd: “The Stanley Camry was pretty quick. We were kind of just trying to move to the front and get some track position and I guess we had a right front go down. I felt it pop, and I was kind of along for the ride. It was a pretty hard hit. It’s a shame. The Stanley Camry was fast. I think we just needed to get up front a little more and we could have contended. It’s a shame; it’s kind of the story of our season. We’ve just had a rough year, and things are just not going our way. Hopefully, we can just turn it around, keep bringing fast cars and have things turn around for us.”

Justin Allgaier – finished 37th: “The No. 15 (Brennan Poole) actually got in the back of me. I didn’t know if I got (hit) the gentleman on the No. 12 (Ryan Blaney‘s crew member) or not. Once the wreck started happening in front of us and we all got bottled-up there, one car after another were getting run into. It’s just a shame. I hate it for these guys on this Ally No. 48. They’ve done such a great job. They’ve prepared so well for the circumstances. Obviously, our hearts and thoughts are for Jimmie (Johnson) and his family right now. That’s the most important piece of all this is getting him back to the race track soon. And, I wanted to do well for them today and it’s disappointing to be standing here talking to you (TV interviewer) unfortunately. But we’ll go on. I don’t know what next week looks like yet. We’ll go run the Xfinity Series race and go have a good shot at it. It’s a disappointing way to end the Brickyard 400.”

Martin Truex Jr. – finished 38th: “Terrible. Disappointing. We really only ran one lap up to speed, then we ended up having that engine deal, so it’s just disappointing. Our Auto Owners Camry felt amazing. I thought that we were going to have a great day. We ran a lap and a half, I guess, and it was feeling really good and then engine went down. The deal on pit road, that kind of happened to us last year. I almost aborted. I almost said I’m going to wait and come around the next lap, but the guys really wanted to get under the hood and assess the engine, and come to find out it was just a spark plug problem, so we could have easily fixed it and had a really good day. Thanks to Auto Owners and Toyota and everyone that supports us. We will come back strong and hopefully get them next week.”

Jimmie Johnson mentors NASCAR’s next wave: ‘He leads by example’

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – On the eve of Jimmie Johnson’s last full-time season, he is being hailed as one of NASCAR’s greatest.

Not just as a driver but as a person.

Beyond 83 victories and seven championships in Cup, Johnson also established himself as a highly accessible and supportive mentor whose wisdom is viewed with great regard by the next generation in NASCAR’s premier series.

Perhaps the best example is Corey LaJoie, whom Johnson vouched for to help get the 28-year-old in a Cup ride. Because of Johnson’s support, LaJoie could be among the candidates being considered by Hendrick Motorsports to fill the No. 48 next season.

“In this garage area, as we all know we’re around each other so often, so much, if you want, you can form a relationship and a friendship pretty quick,” Johnson said. “I just always have. I’ve always had people be open and available for me. I know how it’s shaped my career. I’ve just wanted to do the same.

“It’s just me.”

At Media Day for Sunday’s Daytona 500, several drivers in their 20s were asked for their best stories about Johnson, how he’s influenced them and what his impact and legacy will be in NASCAR.

Here are their responses:

Ryan Blaney: “I grew up watching Jimmie and I was in Late Models when he was winning five in a row. As a kid, how could you not be a fan of that guy and how humble he is? It has been a pleasure to race with him the last handful of years. It has been a lot of fun. I got chewed out by him last year (at Watkins Glen), which was great. I look back on that, and it is a fond memory of mine. I will never forget that. It is a good memory because we got over it the next week. You never see that side of Jimmie. It is unfortunate that I had to be the one to bring that side out in him.

“I remember standing at driver intros with my dad when I was a kid, and Jimmie was standing there, and now I am standing at driver intros with him. I am lucky enough to become friends with him over the years. It has actually made me pretty upset the last couple of years that people have been saying negative things about him. He has had a rough couple of years from what he is used to and people are saying he is washed up and things like that. That actually pisses me off. You see that a lot with great athletes as they get further on in their careers. People forget the great things they have done and just focus on the here and now. It is going to be weird not racing with Jimmie because I love racing with him. I don’t think people realize how good he really is until he isn’t around it anymore. You will look back and be like, ‘Man, we were experiencing a legend.’ I don’t think people give him enough credit and that is unfortunate.”

Alex Bowman: “In 2014, when I was driving my first year in Cup for a low-budget team, he was like the first guy to come up to me and be like, ‘You’re doing a really good job with that car.’ I think we had just run Vegas, and he was like, ‘Man, that thing looked terrible, but you’re doing a really good job’. So, he was the first to come up and say that. I thought that was really cool because I didn’t know him at all before that. But just really being able to be around him, see the type of person that he is and just try to be a sponge when he’s around. He’s more successful than anyone that is racing right now and he’s also the most humble guy in the garage. He’s just a great human being and the way he carries himself has been really cool to learn from.”

William Byron: “He’s been a huge mentor for me, kind of given me a lot of support. We’ve just kind of grown the off-track relationship, being at the karting track, working with him on a personal level with fitness, understanding how my body works and things like that. He’s been a huge mentor in those areas. I grew up being a big Jimmie Johnson fan, and that feels cool. I think just the mentor side he has for us, what he brings to the table in that area is going to be missed.”

Matt DiBenedetto: “He’s always been a good level-headed guy to go to and talk with and even just talking on basic, personal things just as a human being has always been good to get to know him. He’s always given really neat reinforcement of ‘Keep grinding.’ He’s understood my path to get here and how hard I’ve worked and for a seven-time champion to have always been so encouraging throughout my career has really meant a lot more than he’ll know.”

Austin Dillon: “When I was in Xfinity and running for a championship in the first year, I reached out to him. I was running like second or third while running for that championship and just wanted his advice as a Chevy driver.

“And he came back with everything he could give me as far as wisdom in racing for a championship. How he would race for a championship. He started texting me after each race and was coming back to me with something even through Homestead and practices. It was cool. Then in the second year in Xfinity when we won the championship, we were doing similar things. But this time he was actually asking me similar questions on what the track would do.

“Hearing that from a guy that won five championships at that time, I was just kind of mind blown that he was able to talk to someone that is in a lesser series and be able to learn from them. He was going to take anything he could take and apply it to his game. That is something that I will always remember from Jimmie, is the relentless effort and not afraid to get better in any way.”

Chase Elliott: “He won five (championships) in a row. Like the seven thing is great, that’s amazing. But five in a row? Y’all sit back and think about that. That’s about as many times as I’ve won a race, which isn’t saying much. I think about all the great drivers who won one. That’s crazy. Probably won’t ever happen ever again, ever.

“I think he just exemplifies how you should go about your life really on and off the racetrack. I think he’s a great person. He has his off-the-track life figured out. He treats people the way they deserve to be treated. He’s just a class guy. I think he leads by example. I’ve enjoyed having somebody like that to look up to.

“I don’t understand why (Johnson doesn’t get as much credit for his results). I don’t know if it’s just an era thing. On the same token, he was around in the mid-2000s when some other guys were, too, that I feel like get a lot of that recognition and names that you know. I don’t know. I really don’t. I’ve often wondered that. I’ve never really understood.

“I do think it will be one of those things that once he’s gone, people are going to be like, ‘Whoa!’ Maybe it’s just because he’s such a nice guy that he hasn’t changed at all. He’s had that same even keel that he had when he came in in 2000 or 2001. Never had the big personality, I guess, to go along with all the success, which I think is great. I think that’s how it should be or how you should be.”

Tyler Reddick: “Any time I’ve ever needed anything or had questions, he’s always been real quick to reply. If I ever had any questions — racing related, bikes, whatever — he’s right there to help, give advice. Just speaks to who Jimmie is. Everyone here for the most part knows what I’m talking about. He’s a standup guy. If you need help with something, he’s going to help you. That’s really cool.”

Bubba Wallace: “Last (November) at Texas, we were under caution. We were having a terrible race. I looked up on the pylon, and he was like fifth and I’m like hell yeah. I just happened to look over and he’s right next to me so I pulled (up) and I get close to him and I gave him a thumbs up and he comes back and revs it up at me. So, he was pumped. I’m a huge fan of Jimmie. Everybody in the field wants to compete against him, but all of us are pulling for him. I know I am; to get back into Victory Lane and go out and win the championship. That would be cool.

“When they say, ‘seven-time champion,’ they say ‘Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty.’ And then they’re like, ‘Oh, and Jimmie Johnson.’ It’s like ‘What? He’s right there with them.’ I guess that’s just Jimmie’s persona. He’s cool, calm, and collected and under the radar. Jimmie is an all-around great guy. He knows how to get it done on the race track.”

Photos: Getty Images

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.

Jimmie Johnson on brink of missing playoffs: ‘Just one of those nights’

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BRISTOL, Tenn. – Jimmie Johnson stood smiling outside his battered No. 48 Chevrolet, joking with a few team members who gestured knowingly at the remains of the car.

The seven-time Cup Series champion is on the brink of missing the playoffs for the first time in 16 seasons of the NASCAR postseason after finishing 19th Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, but it was hard to get upset after the way the cards fell over 500 laps on the 0.533-mile oval.

“Just one of those nights,” he told NBCSports.com. “We had one thing go our way, and about 15 that didn’t. It was just a shitty night.”

After starting 30th, Johnson got caught in a crash with Austin Dillon (who had suffered a right front tire failure) on Lap 80. He fell two laps down and spent the rest of the race playing catchup that now leaves him in a serious hole with two races remaining in the regular season.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver is ranked 18th in the standings, 26 points behind the cutoff line, and if a driver below him in the standings were to win at Darlington Raceway or Indianapolis Motor Speedway (as Matt DiBenedetto nearly did Saturday at Bristol), that would make Johnson’s situation even more dire.

“I think I’ve got one more shot,” he said when asked if he was facing a win-or-else situation. “I don’t know. It’s just so hard to predict. (Darlington and Indianapolis are) two great tracks for me. Two places I love. So we’ll just see what happens.”

It would help if Johnson can get a better start. Saturday was his fifth-worst starting spot in 36 races at Bristol, and the second time in the past four races that he had qualified 30th or worse.

“Without a doubt, qualifying put us in that spot,” Johnson said. “Better qualifying effort would have had us in a much better position. I wouldn’t have been near (Dillon) when he blew his tire, and life would be totally different.”

Still, Kyle Busch qualified one spot behind Johnson and was able to lead 30 laps and battle his way to a fourth.

The critical moment for Johnson might have happened just before the halfway mark. After pitting under yellow with five laps remaining in Stage 2, he sustained damage after contact with Paul Menard on the restart with two laps to go.

Though he ended the stage in the free-pass position, he had to pit again under yellow to fix a left-front fender rub – losing the free pass position and any hope of regaining the lead lap.

He got caught in a five-car wreck on Lap 373 that ripped off the right side of his car and required repairs for the energy-absorbing foam that fell out in the collision. He ended up finishing four laps down in a “respectable” 19th, his sixth consecutive finish outside the top 10.

But he seemed in good spirits after debriefing with crew chief Cliff Daniels, who doesn’t have a top 15 in three races since taking the helm of Johnson’s team.

“For as beat up as that car is and to run as we did on old tires most of the night, we had a good night, we just had a lot of bad luck,” said Johnson, who turns 44 in September and likely will need to decide soon if he will race beyond his contract expiring after the 2020 season. “I’ve got to look at the truth inside this team and how strong this team is, how good this team is geling, and I know the results are coming.

“It’s just a series of bad luck, and all of it started with a bad qualifying effort. We have to clean things up for sure. This team is really starting to gel and come along.”

Jimmie Johnson, Chad Knaus and the pantheon of pro sports partners

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Four races remain for one of NASCAR’s greatest crew chief-driver duos, and Martinsville Speedway might mark the best hope for one final win by Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus.

The No. 48 Chevrolet has nine victories at the 0.526-mile oval, which ranks Johnson first among active drivers. It’s been 55 starts since the last victory (June 4, 2017 at Dover International Speedway) for the seven-time series champion, who will have Kevin Meendering as crew chief next year as Knaus moves on to lead the team of Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron.

In the feature essay above, Sports Illustrated senior writer Tim Layden puts the 17-year partnership in perspective, ranking Johnson and Knaus among the great player-coach tandems such as Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson; and Joe Montana and Bill Walsh.