CONCORD, N.C. – The midafternoon rays poured through the plate glass picture windows, and illumination suddenly came for this unusually late green flag on a momentous announcement befitting a much earlier timeslot.
Now it made sense: The backdrop of a gorgeous November sunset stretched across the sprawling campus of Hendrick Motorsports was the perfect setting to discuss the dusk of Jimmie Johnson’s career.
Except that wasn’t the reason for holding this opening farewell at the curious start time of 4 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon.
This wasn’t about an ending. The big clue in timing was at the beginning of the news conference to announce the final chapter of perhaps the greatest career in NASCAR history.
“Girls, please join us,” host Winston Kelley called out to Johnson’s daughters, Genevieve and Lydia, who scrambled up the stage in their floral and pink dresses.
“On behalf of our entire family, we would like to thank you for all being here,” Genevieve confidently told the crowd. “Today is a very special announcement. We would like to ask Mr. Hendrick of Hendrick Motorsports and the driver of the No. 48 Ally Chevrolet, seven-time NASCAR champion and our dad, Jimmie Johnson, to please join us on the stage.”
To explain his full-time departure from NASCAR’s premier circuit in 2020, Jimmie Johnson scheduled a news conference at 4 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon because his kids had tests that couldn’t be rescheduled to pull them out of school.
Given their impact on his life-changing decision, he wanted them present. Genevieve, 9, was still “processing the news,” and Lydia, 6, barely feigned interest when dad tried to show her a video Wednesday morning that he soon would post to social media to tell the world.
“Breakfast is a very important part of the day, a focal point for my kids,” Johnson said with a chuckle. “Lydia was midway through her pancakes and could not be bothered and wanted me to pass the butter.”
It turns out Johnson’s youngest can be a tough nut to crack just like the seven-time champion sometimes can be, and Thursday was the most quintessential of Jimmie Johnson news conferences.
— Hendrick Motorsports (@TeamHendrick) November 23, 2019
Over the course of 45 minutes, there was hardly an ounce of sentimentality about his vast accomplishments. With the exception of a brief quaver and a couple of tears shed at team owner Rick Hendrick’s closing remarks, there was no discernible emotion.
“I’m just very, very thankful for relationships that I’ve built in this sport,” Johnson, 44, said in wrapping up. “My mind is running wild on me right now, and I’m trying not to cry.
That was as close as he got.
Complete and cool detachment, total focus under duress and mental toughness always have been overlooked hallmarks of Johnson’s greatness. They also burn brightly during interviews focusing solely on his life and a career that has featured 83 wins in NASCAR’s premier series and an unprecedented five consecutive championships.
Away from the track, it also includes a 2019 Boston Marathon appearance, thousands of miles in competitive cycling and more than $11.5 million donated through his foundation to schools, hospitals and charities that focus on children in need.
But Johnson rarely reflects publicly in meaningful ways on all that he’s done.
You always have to look harder (because humility keeps him from tipping his hand) to fully understand what drives this once-in-a-generation athlete who might have won the Tour de France instead of the Daytona 500 if he’d put his mind to it.
But once you do, it all makes sense.
“That’s the one thing that people don’t realize about Jimmie,” said longtime crew chief Chad Knaus, who guided Johnson to all his championships while also becoming a best friend. “And I’ve been able to witness it firsthand. When he puts his mind to something, he sets the goals, and he achieves them. Every one of us wants to go and lose weight. Every one of us wants to eat better. And we all halfheartedly attempt to make those goals and actually complete them. He just does it. He’s a pretty special person from that standpoint.”
It’s perhaps the primary reason he has been so wildly successful and why he was so laser-focused Thursday on his performance in his 19th and final season in 2020. He hardly mentioned his family after the introduction even when pressed for how they had influenced his decision.
“I knew that at some point, that was really going to really weigh on me to want to be around (family) a lot more,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to believe they are 9 and 6 now, and that much time has elapsed, but I just have a fire in me to push for that and stay at the track.
“I still have that fire, and I am coming back next year. Next year is not a mail-it-in year. It’s a year we are going to win races and compete for a championship. So I know I can give what I need to this team for another year. After that, I’m ready to have some time back on my side and just have a better balance in life.”
There were glimpses of that balance after Thursday’s program when he spent 20 minutes taking photos with close friends and family.
The first thing he tweeted Friday morning was a collage of his daughters and his wife, Chandra, underscoring their importance in throttling back.
Yesterday was a big moment for our family. I am looking forward to many more with these girls! pic.twitter.com/87TMB1SaRt
Knaus can relate after becoming a first-time father himself last year to Kipling.
“I would give up every championship and every race win for my son,” Knaus said. “Anybody that has children can identify with that. I never knew the impact that Kipling was going to have on me.
“For Jimmie to have those same emotions for two girls, I can’t even begin to imagine how he’s lasted as long as he has. It’s pretty remarkable, but he’s going to be a great dad. They’re going to have somebody to come home crying to when they have a bad day at school, and he’s going to be there. He’s not going to be necessarily in New Hampshire, Atlanta, Pocono, where he’s not there to share it with them.”
Crew chief Cliff Daniels said Johnson had indicated he needed to step back because he virtually would have no other way to know if his girls needed him more.
“It’s interesting how grateful he has been the whole time that his girls and Chani have supported him no matter what and openly told him as long as he wants to keep driving, they will support him,” Daniels said. “To have that support, I almost think made him a little more introspective to say ‘OK, am I doing the right thing to continue to require this sort of patience and sacrifice from them?’
“I know it is a factor, and he just wants to be at a place in his life where he can enjoy his family, enjoy his career and take a breath.”
As usual with Johnson, you don’t get nearly as much out of him about himself.
He is always accommodating and among the most well-spoken NASCAR drivers for delivering big-picture quotes that can be sharply critical.
He falls into opacity when asked to turn the lens inward, leaning back on a bevy of buzzwords (“headspace”, or just “space”, is often popular) to explain himself in often unintentionally cryptic ways.
It’s better to ask those who know him best about the decision to end his career.
Daniels was given the news in a Tuesday night dinner at Haberdish, a Southern comfort food restaurant in Charlotte’s NoDa arts district (near a gallery owned by his wife).
Over two to three hours of conversation, Daniels could tell Johnson was at peace with the decision after consecutive winless seasons but no less inspired to end on a high note after missing the playoffs for the first time in 2019.
“It was a completely refreshing conversation,” Daniels said. “It wasn’t a shocking surprise. … To know he is still very positive about himself really means a lot to me because I know we’re going to see that on the racetrack next year. We’re going to see a guy who’s energized, excited, kind of rejuvenated to really go out on top, and I think he’s more than capable.”
Jeff Gordon, who hand-picked Johnson as the driver of Hendrick’s No. 48 after being impressed in an Xfinity race nearly 20 years ago, said his former protegé already had made up his mind about full-time retirement when they recently met for coffee … and likely long before that.
“Heck, I can remember when I was retiring (in 2015), hearing just a few questions that maybe he asked about the process and what made me decide that was the time,” Gordon said. “But the last couple of weeks, he and I got together, and it was more us just bouncing thoughts and ideas as friends.”
So what is next after 2020?
Probably something in racing. There are hints about sports cars (Johnson has raced in but has yet to win the Rolex 24) and IndyCar races on street and road courses. The World of Outlaws tweeted an invite to run a sprint car.
“He’s very committed and nothing will stop him, so who knows,” Gordon said of Johnson. “I got to compete against him in basically the same equipment, and I can tell you I’ve never raced with anybody better. That’s why I respect him so much. I’ll just second what a lot of people have been saying is the way he’s done it. To do it with class, style, his own way. I appreciate that.”
“I looked up to other drivers and either tried to emulate them or tried to beat them and hopefully force them to step their game up. I hope that I did that for others, but I can tell you 100% Jimmie did that for me and others, I’m sure. I thought that I had things figured out, and then Jimmie Johnson comes along and starts beating me on a regular basis. It forced me to look within myself and go, ‘OK, what am I not doing? What more can I do?’ He elevated my game.”
Johnson always has tried to downplay that legacy and did so again Thursday by nothing he’s “not very smart.” He unfailingly has presented himself for nearly 20 years as just the simple son of a heavy machinery operator and a school bus driver from a lower-middle class trailer park in El Cajon, California.
Such a backstory should have resonated more with NASCAR’s blue-collar fan base, which mostly seems to overlook his fun-loving side that was baked in the freewheeling Southern California sun.
Car owner Rick Hendrick was right to call Johnson “the perfect driver” as far as talent, sponsor relations and physical commitment. “You never had to make an excuse for Jimmie Johnson,” Hendrick said. “He was always on his mark. He never embarrassed anybody. He is a role model and an athlete that I’ve never seen in any kind of sport.”
But his driver also is no saint, and he knows how to have fun. He celebrated his first championship with an ill-advised and alcohol-drenched surfing stunt atop a golf cart at a charity tournament, resulting in a tumble and a broken wrist.
On an entryway table Thursday, Johnson offered a media gift – 50 ml glass bottles of Patron Silver – that was a nod to an upstanding seven-time champion who also favored tequila shots with his team members in an anteroom at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas — an annual tradition they started during NASCAR Champion’s Week.
But Johnson always has resisted — not on purpose, mind you, it’s just the way he’s wired to be reserved and humble on camera — the attempts to jam him into the boxes that conveniently would explain how a relative unknown showed up in 2002 and effortlessly outran heralded teammate Gordon to reach NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore (albeit in the Teddy Roosevelt position).
It’s made it more difficult to appreciate how great Johnson is
When he is inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2024, Johnson will take his rightful place alongside Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty. He is their equal in on-track titles and as an off-track ambassador.
The comparisons stop there, though. Johnson is extremely well-liked among his peers but never has been labeled as the Mr. Congeniality of Petty or having the John Wayne swagger of Earnhardt.
This is more an indictment of us than him. Johnson always has compartmentalized his feelings, but he also has done it with dignity and earnestness that sometimes is mischaracterized as robotic and vanilla.
In a racing series that has celebrated bad guys, he frequently has been criticized for just being too … good.
“On the track, off the track; I mean I think sometimes people didn’t respect him because he was too perfect,” Hendrick said. “You know, that he didn’t have that big edge. But he could win and do it like that and be a gentleman and race people clean and ever had any problems. And so when history looks back at him, they’ll say that this guy was an unbelievable athlete (and) father, and he and Chani give so much away
“In every box that you check in life (like) what you do with kids, how you raise your family, and you’re a champion. And every sponsor that he’s had, they love him to death. I just think the stats speak for themselves. But people are going to remember the man, Jimmie Johnson.”
And soon he’ll be just the family man.
With much more time to enjoy the sunsets with his girls.