By David Morgan, Associate Editor
The clock was running down for Jimmie Johnson.
He knew he had to make a decision on how much longer he wanted to race full-time in the NASCAR Cup Series, but as the 2019 season progressed, he didn’t have a strong feeling one way or the other.
Then about three weeks ago, it hit him like a bolt of lightning that next season would be his final season driving the No. 48 Ally Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. After giving team owner Rick Hendrick the news and discussing it with friends and family, Johnson made it official on Wednesday that he will run one more season at NASCAR’s highest level before taking a step back.
Speaking with the media on Thursday afternoon, Johnson explained the process he went through in determining when to call it a career.
“Many of you that know me, I like to have a plan and I like to think things through,” Johnson said. “I did plenty of that through the spring and summer, just knowing I have to make a decision. In my mind, I felt like I needed to make a decision by the end of the year. Nothing really hit me in the gut with the feeling that I wanted to stay or stop at the end of 2020. As the year went on and we rolled into October, the feeling just became real. It really did and it felt good to think about.
“It was such a profound moment that I really take it back to the moment in time where I knew I wanted to buy a ring for her (pointing to his wife Chandra); it was just that strong in my stomach. I was like ‘wow, this is what I want to do’…I feel very, very good about my decision. It’s time.
“I feel so fortunate that it showed up to me in that way. I’ve talked to greats like Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr.; everyone has had their own journey. Some of those guys maybe set a date and left before their heart really wanted to leave. There are a lot of other athletes that their time is called and they don’t have that opportunity to pick their own. I feel very blessed and fortunate to have this opportunity. It just feels right.”
When Johnson told him that 2020 would be his final full-time season, Hendrick noted that he was “shocked,” but went on to explain that their time together and the success they had would be something he would cherish forever.
“Everybody knows Jimmie; he processes everything,” he said. “When he’s made up his mind, he’s not wishy-washy at all. He’s done so much for us and for the sport. If you just said I’m going to make a list of what the perfect driver would be, from the talent to the ability to work with sponsors and athlete, he’s just raising the bar for our company. From fitness to charity, it’s unbelievable how perfect he is. So, whatever he wanted, I wanted for him.
“I knew the day would come; I should be the one retiring (laughs). I’m happy for him because I want to see what the next chapter is. He has set the foundation and the benchmark for us at this company that we’ll always stride to get there. He’s going to be a buddy, a friend, and go do things together. He’s just an unbelievable person and an unbelievable friend. So, he’s not just a driver, he’s family.”
Johnson went on to tell stories about his favorite memories that have come over the course of his career, but noted that he isn’t done winning by any stretch of the imagination. When it comes to his final full-time season behind the wheel, the 44-year old from El Cajon, California has big goals.
He wants to make a run at an eighth Cup Series championship.
“First of all, the outlook for next year is to absolutely win races and be in that championship four,” Johnson said. “If you’re in that championship four, at Phoenix now, you’ve got a shot. And that is absolutely the goal for next year. I have the fire.
“Our team is getting stronger. I think Hendrick Motorsports as a whole; we’ve had a great evolution through the course of 2019. We have some new things coming our way for 2020.”
When it comes to life after full-time racing, Johnson still wants to race, just without the pressure of the grueling NASCAR schedule weighing on his mind.
In the past, Johnson has expressed interest in running in other disciplines of racing after his NASCAR career is over and will be able to explore those avenues starting in 2021. Whatever Johnson decides to do, he won’t have a lack of opportunities going forward.
“This is not a retirement from driving race cars,” Johnson insisted. “This is just slowing down from 38 weekends a year, and you certainly know the stress, pressure and grind that it takes. 19 years in Cup and 2 years in the Xfinity Series, plus everything before that, it’s been a heck of a run and we’ll keep going.
“I would come back and drive Cup for Mr. Hendrick; all options are open, honestly. I really look forward to what might develop in the 12 months from now and the opportunities that might be out there. I wouldn’t mind going and getting dirty again, with the history I have of off-road racing in the dirt. I’ll just kind of wait and see. Most importantly, I feel like I need to take a deep breath and just see what comes from there. Put my family first instead of racing first for once, and take it from there.”
After making his announcement, Johnson got words of congratulations from across the industry, but joked that drivers and teams were quick to reach out and try to recruit him to run in the various series that exist across the racing spectrum.
“I saw them all pinging me on social media, like hey, dibs! Come race here (laughter). Even the World of Outlaws sent me a tweet.”
Whether or not Johnson ever wins a race again or reels off a championship caliber season in 2020, he will go down as one of the greatest ever to strap into the cockpit of a NASCAR stock car. Regardless of what he does next season, his 83 wins and seven championships are more than enough to make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer when he becomes eligible.
“When history looks back at him, they’ll say that this guy was an unbelievable athlete, father, charities, and he and Chani give so much away,” Hendrick said. “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.”
Fighting back tears as Thursday’s press conference came to a close, Johnson expressed his thanks one final time for the outstanding career he has been able to have behind the wheel.
“I’m just so thankful to literally have chased the dream since I was a kid, to race,” Johnson said. “And, I’m just very, very thankful for relationships that I’ve built in this sport. My mind is running wild on me right now and I’m trying not to cry. But just, thank you.”