The first time you remembered seeing him was probably the aftermath of the Crash. You’ve probably seen it recently since it still makes the highlight reels with regularity. It’s pretty spectacular and scary in its intensity. But next thing toy know, here’s this kid, a little bit goofy-looking, standing on top of the car, arms raised in victory as if he’d won the race. He’s just happy to be alive.
And that was many race fans’ introduction to a young driver named Jimmie Johnson.
A couple of years later, to the surprise of probably everybody, Johnson was handpicked by Jeff Gordon to drive for a new Hendrick Motorsports team that Gordon would co-own. He repaid Gordon by winning three races as a Cup Series rookie and is the only rookie in Cup history to lead the point standings.
You know the rest of the story. Johnson won 83 races and seven championships, including five titles in a row. He seemed to win all the time, to the consternation of everyone who rooted for any other driver. Tony Stewart later called Johnson the most underappreciated driver in NASCAR history.
Johnson was, simply, the best driver of his generation, and one of the best ever to strap into a NASCAR Cup car. Contrary to what his detractors wanted to believe, he was also one of its best ambassadors.
Johnson is the consummate nice guy. He rarely utters a bad word about anybody and is accommodating to both fans and media. It would be hard to find a competitor with a bad word to say about him.
He set up a charitable foundation to help make sure children have the resources they need in school. When racism took center stage, Johnson was one of the first drivers to stand against it, spearheading a video about racial equality and standing with Bubba Wallace after an incident earlier in 2020.
When he announced a year ago that 2020 would be his last season, he hoped to be able to connect with his fans one last time, and he should have been the center of attention much more than he ended up being due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But as with everything throughout his career, Johnson handled the disappointment with grace and class.
He’ll be missed in NASCAR as much for that grace and class as he will for the wins and titles he amassed.
So it should come as no surprise that Johnson took a moment to congratulate his teammate Chase Elliott, the newly crowned Cup champion. Johnson took one last victory lap after the final race at Phoenix Raceway, which Elliott won en route to the title. When he passed Elliott, he drove close enough to give his teammate a high five. And with that, he drove off, declining to do one last burnout, saying that moment was no longer his.
Much was made about the move, because it almost looked as if Johnson was literally passing the baton to Elliott in that moment.
And as Johnson walks into his own sunset, the baton has been passed. There are still older veterans in the Cup Series, and they’re formidable in their own right — Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin.
But NASCAR’s youth movement is alive and well. At Hendrick, the team Johnson raced his entire career with, the oldest driver will be all of 28 when the 2021 season rolls off in Daytona. Elliott is already a champion and all four are Cup race winners.
Of the 13 different race winners in 2020, seven (Elliott, Joey Logano, Alex Bowman, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon, William Byron and Cole Custer) were 30 years old or under. Two, Custer and Byron, were even younger than Elliott, who turned 25 a few weeks after winning his title.
There is a handful of young drivers who haven’t found victory lane yet but certainly look as though it’s going to happen soon, like Matt DiBenedetto, Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Wallace. Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez will be driving for more underfunded teams but are talented youngsters. Chase Briscoe will start his Cup career in ’21. Countless others haven’t even inked Cup deals yet.
Drivers like Johnson come along once in a generation. But the good news is that throughout the history of NASCAR, when the sun has set on one, another is just stepping into the light. As Richard Petty’s star was dimming, Dale Earnhardt’s was shining bright. Johnson was a rookie in 2002, a year after Earnhardt’s death.
Another driver will come along, if they’re not in the Cup Series already, who will in turn wow and bore fans with their winning ways. They’ll win races and titles and polarize fans either into their corner or into putting a sticker with a cartoon character peeing on them on their truck. That’s how it’s always been.
Johnson’s legacy is secure, and NASCAR’s in good hands for the future.