There’s little doubt that this will be the year of Jimmie Johnson. He may not win many races, if any. And he may not contend for the Cup Series title. But every racetrack will honor him and he’ll be the signature voice everyone will want to hear each and every race week.
Sunday, will be his last Daytona 500, a race he’s won twice. Johnson, 44, will retire at the end of this year after having won seven season titles, tying him with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. He’s won 83 races on the top NASCAR circuit.
“I don’t think he’s ever gotten the respect he deserved over the course of his career,” said Chase Elliott, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. “I think he’s the best to ever come along. I think what he’s done in the amount of time he did it in, and the way he did it, I don’t see how that’s matched.”
Johnson was not the big bold personality that Petty or Earnhardt were in their time. The El Cajon native is more thoughtful, not prone to rash statements and can be rather bland. But he does perk up and enjoys the talk about being the best ever.
“It’s great to hear, I’m not going to lie,” Johnson said. “But that’s not a box I need checked. It’s not who I am or what I’m about. … I’m just stoked to be in the conversation.”
Johnson will start on the outside of the third row as the sixth-fastest qualifier. Yet, he’s only the third fastest driver for Hendrick Motorsports. Alex Bowman and William Byron will start on the outside in the first two rows.
Johnson has spent his entire career, starting in 2002, driving a Hendricks car. Owner Rick Hendrick would like nothing better than to send him out with a real shot to win in the most important race on the NASCAR circuit. Johnson last won the Daytona 500 in 2013.
“He’s given so much to the sport and our organization, in particular with seven championships and all the wins,” Hendrick said. “We want to give him everything we can to see him go out with the best results he can.
“I’ve never seen Jimmie so energized. Sometimes, a guy in his last year, they’re celebrating, it’s the end. I don’t want to say they coast, but it’s not a priority to run fast and win. Jimmie is really fired up.”
Johnson knows that when he runs his final Daytona 500, it will be a lot different than the first time he came to this race track.
“It’s not the end of the year, so all the emotions are of fun and excitement for myself, my family and my team,” Johnson said. “But compared to my first year, I showed up here not knowing if I was a Cup driver or if I fit in here. Or if I was going to have a career as a driver.
“My insecurity was maxed, my self-confidence was low. I not only had to prove to the world, but prove to myself that I could compete at this level. It was a much different head space.”
But still, the end of the race Sunday will be different than it has been in the past.
“It certainly could be, especially in the closing laps,” Johnson said. “I could see my brain taking it in a million different ways, worrying about holding guys off and the weight of the moment on my shoulders and all the nerves that come with that.”
Instead of trying for the lead, Johnson could be in the position of having to help a teammate or even someone else who drives a Chevrolet. Four of the top six starting positions are held by Chevrolet, headed by pole winner Rick Stenhouse Jr.
“We’re going to be a factor for sure,” Stenhouse said. “I feel like last time we won a pole at a speedway, we were able to win from the pole at Talladega, and I feel really confident about the speed that’s in our race car. And, [I feel good about] what my guys were able to accomplish all off-season and … have a chance at winning the pole and then doing it.”
There is plenty of experience in the race with four former Daytona 500 winners in the first five rows. Joining Johnson are Joey Logano (starting third, won in 2015), Ryan Newman (seventh, 2008) and Kevin Harvick (10th, 2007). Last year’s winner, Denny Hamlin starts 21st and Series champ Kyle Busch is 28th. Both drive Toyota’s for Joe Gibbs.
This will be the first Daytona 500 since 1988 that restrictor plates will not be used. The device was used to slow cars down and often led to multiple crashes when racing got intense in the final 10 laps. This year, NASCAR has gone to a thicker spacer.
Johnson hasn’t won a race since June 4, 2017, when he found himself in the winner’s circle at Dover Speedway. In 2019, he had three top-five finishes and 12 in the top 10. He needs something special to happen for him to win.
Last year, Hamlin’s win for Joe Gibbs came weeks after the death of Gibbs’ son, J.D., so Daytona has been known to serve up a feel-good story.
If Johnson wins Sunday, there will be no shortage of tears.