By David Morgan, Associate Editor
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Jimmie Johnson may be stepping away from full-time racing in the Cup Series at the end of the 2020 season, but one thing is for sure, the impact that the seven-time champion has had on the sport will live on long after he has taken his final checkered flag.
As drivers circulated through Daytona 500 Media Day on Wednesday, many were asked about their favorite Jimmie Johnson memory and by the time all was said and done, it was clear that Johnson has touched the career of nearly every driver in the garage in some way or another.
Ryan Blaney was one of the first to give his take on Johnson’s legacy in the sport, even laughing about the fact that he was able to make the notoriously level-headed driver mad at him last season.
“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,” said Blaney. “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, 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.”
Despite their on-track run-in (which the two settled the following week over a couple of beers), Blaney was quick to come to Johnson’s defense on Wednesday noting just how much he did not like that Johnson has not been getting the credit he deserves in recent years.
“It has actually made me pretty upset the last couple of years that people have been saying negative things about him, Blaney said. “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. I talked to him right before the Clash and it was cool. He is ready to go for his final year of full-time racing and it will be a lot of fun to be able to be a part of it. I have been able to be a part of Jeff’s and Tony’s. It is cool to be able to be here.”
Bubba Wallace was another to tell his story about Johnson, noting that it came at a time when he wasn’t running very well, but the two were able to share a moment on-track that Wallace still remembers to this day.
“Last year at Texas 2, we were under caution. We were having a terrible race,” Wallace explained. “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 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.”
While Johnson eventually became a seven-time champion in the Cup Series, his beginnings in NASCAR before he landed at Hendrick Motorsports were a rocky ride – something Matt DiBenedetto can relate to as he has had to scratch and claw every step of the way to get where he is.
“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, but as far as my career he’s always given really neat reinforcement of keep grinding,” said DiBenedetto.
“He’s understood my path to get here and how hard I’ve worked and for Jimmie Johnson, seven-time champion and great guy, to have always been so encouraging throughout my career has really meant a lot more than he’ll know.”
Aside from these stories about Johnson, there were countless more illustrating the person that he is both on and off the track.
When asked about why he has played such a big role in being a mentor to so many drivers, Johnson was quick to respond with his reasoning, noting it simply comes down to being friends with so many of his fellow competitors, all across the motorsports spectrum.
“I feel like it’s because I’m really friends with these guys,” Johnson said. “In this garage area, as we all know, we’re around each other so often and so much, if you want, you can form a relationship and a friendship pretty quick and I just always have. I’ve always had people be open and available to me and I know how it’s shaped my career. I just wanted to do the same. So, I’ve just been open to it and available.
“As things would come along, I would see something – it doesn’t matter if it was in our garage area. I have friends that race Supercross and IndyCar and all that. I’ll just send them a text or give them a call and reach out. That’s just been me.
“Coming up through the ranks, one blessing I think I had is I didn’t have this crazy successful start to my career and I think I fell in love with this sport for the right reasons. That was the relationships that are built and the respect that I have for my peers and the people in the garage area.
“I got my first chance when I was 25 to really shine. You’ve got guys now sitting waiting to turn 18 to come in and have their shot and they’re already shining. I just have a little different arc and that whole journey made me who I am today.”