7-time NASCAR champ Jimmie Johnson to retire after 2020 season

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Jimmie Johnson greets fans during the NASCAR Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Va., Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Jimmie Johnson greets fans during the NASCAR Cup Series race at Martinsville Speedway in Martinsville, Va., Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. (AP)

Jimmie Johnson will have one more season in NASCAR.

The seven-time Cup Series champion will retire at the end of the 2020 season when his contract with Hendrick Motorsports is up. Johnson, 44, won his record-tying seventh title in 2016 but hasn’t won a race since June of 2017. He’s currently mired in the longest winless streak of his career. It’s been 95 Cup Series races since Johnson won at Dover.

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Johnson’s retirement isn’t much of a surprise. He had said repeatedly in 2019 that he hadn’t decided how long his career would last and with his contract ending after next season and a new Cup Series car set to be implemented in 2021, the end of the 2020 season is a logical endpoint for Johnson’s career.

Johnson will explain his decision in a news conference on Thursday.

Johnson won five-straight Cup titles

Johnson has been the dominant driver of the 2000s in NASCAR. He won his first Cup Series title in 2006 and promptly reeled off four more in succession as he and crew chief Chad Knaus established themselves as one of the best crew chief-driver pairings in NASCAR history.

Johnson’s sixth title came in 2013. That came in the final season of NASCAR’s 10-race cumulative playoff format. After 2013, NASCAR added eliminations to the playoffs and made the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway a winner-take-all race between four drivers for the championship.

After getting his first six titles in NASCAR’s old playoff format, Johnson got his seventh in the winner-take-all format in 2016 with a pass on a late restart following a crash triggered by Joey Logano and Carl Edwards. That seventh title tied him with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most Cup Series titles.

Johnson hasn’t come close to getting an eighth title in the past three seasons. He was 10th in the points standings in 2017 and finished 14th in 2018. He missed the playoffs for the first time ever in 2019 and ended up finishing 18th in the standings.

Those finishes of 14th and 18th in the standings are the worst points finishes of Johnson’s career. He had finished outside the top 10 in the points standings (11th in 2014) just once in the previous 16 years.

Johnson’s struggles led to a split with Knaus after the 2018 season. As Knaus moved to William Byron’s team at Hendrick, Johnson had Kevin Meendering to start the season. Meendering lasted just 21 races as Johnson’s crew chief before he was replaced by current crew chief Cliff Daniels.

Ranks 6th in wins

Only five drivers are ahead of Johnson on the Cup Series win list.

Johnson has won 83 races in his career; just Petty, David Pearson, Jeff Gordon, Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip have won more. Waltrip and Allison are tied ahead of Johnson with 84 wins. Two wins in 2020 would put Johnson in sole possession of fourth place on the career wins list.

Johnson’s most successful season came in 2007 when he won 10 races and had 20 top-five finishes on the way to his third Cup Series title. Johnson beat Gordon to the title by 77 points as Hendrick Motorsports’ four drivers combined to win 18 of the season’s 36 races. That 2007 season by Hendrick stood as the best multi-car team season in modern NASCAR history until 2019 when Joe Gibbs Racing’s drivers won 19 of 36 races as Kyle Busch won the title on Sunday.

Hendrick Motorsports has seen a lot of turnover

In 2015, Hendrick Motorsports’ four drivers were Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne. As of 2021, they’ll all be retired from the Cup Series.

Gordon retired after the 2015 season. Junior was next with his retirement as he left following the 2017 season. Kahne left Hendrick Motorsports after 2017 and spent the 2018 season with Leavine Family Racing before retiring following a dehydration issue that sidelined him for the end of the season.

Chase Elliott replaced Gordon at Hendrick and has taken over the mantle of the most popular driver in the Cup Series after Junior’s retirement. Alex Bowman replaced Junior in the No. 88 car in 2018 and Byron was promoted to the Cup Series after Kahne left the team.

Elliott, Bowman and Byron are far younger and more cost-effective than the drivers they replaced. They also haven’t seen the success their predecessors saw either. But that was a really high bar of success to clear. And Hendrick has been surpassed by JGR as the dominant team of the Cup Series.

The three drivers also came to the Cup Series from inside the Hendrick Motorsports fold. Elliott and Byron drove for JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series before coming to Cup. Bowman was a test and simulator driver for the team.

There’s no obvious in-house replacement for Johnson. It’s likely that the team will go outside the organization to find his replacement. That could send the 2021 Cup Series free-agent market into a tizzy.

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports

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