Time slides by as silently as winter and as quickly as a moment, and only after it has passed do we really take notice. As NASCAR enters 2020, just one full-time NASCAR Cup Series driver once raced against Dale Earnhardt. Those who have come onto the scene in the last couple of years never raced against Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart.
And a year from now, the series newest entries won’t race against Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson, 44, announced just after the 2019 season that 2020 will be his last as a full-time racer. He might strap in for a race here and there, but he won’t be at a racetrack every week. He has two young daughters and wants to see them grow up, and the timing means he won’t transition to the seventh-generation car coming in 2021.
No matter what he does in 2020, Johnson will exit NASCAR with seven titles, something to which only Richard Petty and Earnhardt can also lay claim. He also has 83 Cup Series wins in 651 starts to date, easily the most among active drivers and tied for sixth all-time. He’s led nearly 19,000 laps and posted an average finish of 12.9 over 18 full seasons.
NASCAR, of course, will roll on without Johnson. The sport has survived plenty of driver departures and will certainly withstand this one, too. Johnson may have more social media followers than just about everyone in the sport, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., but he hasn’t been as popular as perhaps he should have been given his talent and personality. Blame that on when Johnson was steamrolling the Cup Series, winning five titles in a row from 2006-2010, or on his longtime crew chief’s creative engineering or maybe on Johnson’s thoughtful, often overly self-conscious nature coupled with perhaps being a bit throttled by PR people who should have been telling him to let his personality show more.
Johnson was the epitome of the blue-collar driver as he rose through the ranks. His family couldn’t afford to fund him beyond dirt bikes, so Johnson had to convince backers that he was worth taking a chance on. He did that successfully from racing off-road buggies and trucks in his teens all the way to a later meeting with mega-sponsor Lowe’s, where he was asked, “Can you win?” Johnson, who really hadn’t won much of anything in NASCAR at that point, simply said yes. What else could he have said?
And then he went out and backed it up. It’s easy to cite the backing he’s had from Chevrolet since he was 16 or so as the reason for Johnson getting his shot, but he didn’t get that support because of money or a famous last name but through being willing to do whatever it took to drive a race vehicle and then to take it to its limit every time out. Johnson should have been his era’s blue-collar hero.
Success hasn’t come so easily for Johnson over the last couple of years, though, and he admitted in an interview with Frontstretch earlier this year that his hunger to win reminds him of his early days in Cup, when he worried about keeping his job, even after the wins started coming.
“Being able to win my first Cup race and then win regularly just brought a lot of confidence and comfort and just quieted my own mind down,” Johnson said. “Every driver deals with a lot of doubts and a lot of struggles week in and week out. And I can certainly add my own. And then as things kind of slow down over the years, yeah. The doubt and lack of confidence kind of creeps back in. It’s, you know, I’m human and everyone is and that’s inevitable. But this, this journey I’ve had, I’ve learned so much through it.”
Johnson doesn’t have to prove anything in 2020, but he desperately wants to go out on a good note. The question is whether he and his team can get enough of a handle on the current Cup car to contend consistently.
Johnson feels like he and crew chief Cliff Daniels are on the right track; communication improved drastically when Daniels took the reins, and qualifying results have overall been on the climb. The second half of 2019 was less dismal than the first.
“It reminds me of my early days in stock car racing, back to the Herzogs when I was racing for them and just how people notice the work effort,” Johnson said. “People noticed at the time I put into it and eventually the results came. So I feel like I’m back in familiar territory right now and we’re rebuilding our team and the results will come.”
Should Johnson find victory lane in 2020, it will put an exclamation point on a career that’s defined an era in NASCAR. There may be nothing left to prove, but Johnson would like to prove that wrong too as he takes the white flag on one of the most dominant careers in history.