By David Morgan, Associate Editor
The torch has been passed.
As Jimmie Johnson was making the most of his final start behind the wheel of the No 48 Chevrolet, it was only fitting that on the same day he was bidding farewell to the NASCAR Cup Series, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Chase Elliott, was taking his first steps toward greatness by capturing his first Cup championship with a dominating drive.
The seven-time champion finished out the season strong by bringing home a top-five Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, finishing the race as the best of the rest as the first car not in the Championship 4.
Shortly after crossing the finish line, Johnson spun his car around to salute the fans before pulling up alongside his newly crowned teammate, with the two reaching out and high-fiving each other before going their separate ways. Truly a passing of the torch moment that the two champions were able to share.
— Hendrick Motorsports (@TeamHendrick) November 8, 2020
“Oh, my gosh, 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. You know, and this is a dream. I’m just hoping I don’t ever wake up,” Elliott said of being able to have that moment with Johnson after the race.
Elliott noted the catalyst for the moment between him and Johnson stemmed from a moment his father and Matt Kenseth shared in the 2003 season finale and he was ecstatic that they were able to pull it off.
“In that moment actually there was a photo that had sat around my parents’ office for years,” Elliott recalled. “I think it was 2001, if I’m not mistaken, ’01 or ’02, dad won the race at Homestead and Matt Kenseth won the championship. And y’all can fact check me on that, but I think it was ’01, whenever Matt won his championship. 03?
“Okay, so dad won the race and Matt won the championship. There was a photo that sat around of them high-fiving in their cars as they were driving by.
“I saw Jimmie kind of taking his victory lap up there and that picture flashed in my head. And I was like, damn, that would be super, super cool to recreate that moment. Yeah, we did. I really hope somebody took that picture because that was really cool. I hope somebody got it.”
The newly minted champion continued his thoughts on the day, alluding to the symbology of him winning the title on the same day Johnson was making his exit.
“Today I feel like symbolized a lot of great things, and I feel like there’s a lot of things from today I’ll look back on in a week or a month or a year, and I’ll be like, dang, that was really cool. That being one of them for sure.
“Jimmie and I have shared some really cool moments on track, and they’ve been in really big moments of my career. The moment we shared after Watkins Glen, the road to that first win. And then for the greatest of all time to be kind of hanging it up today and to win a championship on that day, I mean, that’s just a really cool thing.
“As a fan of his, number one, and as a person that’s looked up to Jimmie in many ways over the years, I’m not sure I could have dreamt that any better.”
Team owner Rick Hendrick echoed those sentiments, noting how special the moment between the two champions was.
“I thought it was pretty cool the way they met each other on the track at the end of the race,” Hendrick said. “Jimmie’s last race is Chase’s first championship, and to see those two guys embrace, that was really cool. I think it means a lot to our whole organization.
“Jimmie is really special to us, like part of our family. Chase is the new kid coming along — not a kid, but… He’s a champion now.
“It was a special moment to see those two guys embrace. I think they tore the cars up running into each other out there a little bit, but it was a special time and a special place.”
When asked what he would remember most about his final start as a full-time Cup Series driver, Johnson didn’t hesitate in expressing his excitement about Elliott joining him in the Cup Series champions club.
“I’m so happy for that guy,” Johnson said. “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 eight 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.”
Even as Johnson was consumed with the emotions of the day and was busy soaking in his final race as a full-time Cup Series driver, the elder statesman at Hendrick Motorsports shared some encouraging thoughts with his young teammate, which made an even bigger impact given that Elliott would have to start the race at the back of the pack due to pre-race inspection issues.
“You know, the last text message I saw before the race was from Jimmie,” Elliott said. “And he said, The road to the top — I forget what he said. He said something about the road to the top can have some twists in it. I hate you guys are having to start in the back, but you can get it done.
“That was the last thing I saw before the race. Certainly appreciate his support. He’s been a great support system this week. I’ve talked to him multiple times. He’s reached out on a couple occasions, which is very cool. Very thankful.
“He’s a hero of mine. I think he’ll go down as the greatest to ever do this mess. For that type of guy to be reaching out lending support and genuinely wanting you to do good, hell, what else can you ask for?”
As he heads off to the open wheel ranks in 2021, Johnson finishes his NASCAR career in elite company, with seven championships and 83 wins, leaving him tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most titles and tied with Cale Yarborough at sixth on the all-time wins list.
Though his final season wasn’t quite the send-off he would have liked to have on track, he can ride off into the sunset with his head held high, knowing the legacy he has left on the sport during his nearly two decades in the Cup Series.
“It was nice to be competitive out there and run the top 5, finish in the top 5, but my bucket is full,” Johnson said. “NASCAR has been so wonderful for me. This journey has been more than I could have ever dreamed of or expected or hoped for.
“The last couple years on track weren’t as I dreamed up, but I’ve experienced the highest of highs and worked with the greatest people, been with one team through this entire journey, and just very thankful for all the people that have helped me get here.
“All those emotions and all that pride rolled up into just a huge smile today walking out on the grid.”