When NASCAR’s once-surging popularity began to fall off a decade ago, many fans believed they knew a key reason why: Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson and his No. 48 Chevrolet made winning look easy and routine, and the El Cajon native captured an astonishing five consecutive NASCAR Cup Series titles from 2006 through 2010. He later added two more in 2013 and 2016.
That wasn’t all. Johnson, publicly at least, was the antithesis of the stereotypical good ol’ boy NASCAR stock-car driver. Win or lose, he was largely unemotional and polite, a clean-cut former off-road racer not given to headline-grabbing outbursts and, in the eyes of many, dominant and boring.
Now, all that largely has been forgotten because Johnson, 44, has announced that this is his final full season after a long drought of not winning. He’s received an outpouring of respect and well-wishes from throughout the sport, and he’s being feted at every track he visits on the 36-race Cup schedule.
The next stop is Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, site of the Auto Club 400 on Sunday and the speedway that Johnson not only calls his home track but where he’s enjoyed some of his greatest success.
Johnson holds the record for most Cup victories at Fontana with six, which included his first Cup win in 2002. His most recent win there came in 2016.
He’ll start strong again Sunday. Johnson on Saturday qualified to start second with a speed of 179.582 mph on the two-mile oval, just behind Clint Bowyer, who won the pole position with a lap of 179.614 mph.
The tributes to Johnson on Sunday will include having him lead the field during its pace laps and having his wife and two daughters wave the green flag to start the race.
Asked before the season what tracks he was most eager to revisit, Johnson said Auto Club Speedway. “I’ve had a lot of race wins there and a lot of special moments,” he said.
There haven’t been many special moments at any track for Johnson in the last three years. He’s gone 97 races without a victory; his last win came at Dover in June 2017.
His team, Hendrick Motorsports, hoped to spark an improvement by shifting Johnson’s longtime crew chief, Chad Knaus, to another of its drivers and tapping Cliff Daniels as Knaus’ replacement on the Johnson car.
They’re optimistic about this season. Although Johnson was collected in a crash at Daytona that left him with a 35th-place finish, he finished fifth last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“I knew we were going to start the year strong,” Johnson said after the Vegas race. “It’s going to be a good year.”
Johnson tweeted his goals for this year on Feb. 7, saying they included “leaving it all on the track week in and week out” and making NASCAR’s playoffs so he at least has a shot at an unprecedented eighth championship. He shares the record of seven titles with Hall of Fame drivers Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt Sr.
“I’m going to try really hard to let in the 19 years that I’ve had and the memories that come with that, the relationships, the experiences,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be tough for me. I’m highly competitive.”
Johnson has 83 career Cup victories, tying him with Cale Yarborough for sixth on the all-time list. Even more notable is that Johnson kept winning despite ever-changing car designs and rules mandated by NASCAR during his 19-year Cup career, including the vastly different Car of Tomorrow that arrived in 2007.
“You never had to make an excuse for Jimmie Johnson,” his team owner Rick Hendrick told reporters last November when Johnson announced his final-season plans. Johnson thrived because of “his attention to detail, his work ethic,” Hendrick said. “He’s like a computer in the car.”
At the end of 2015, the last year that NASCAR reported the drivers’ race winnings that are divided among their teams, Johnson’s career winnings had totaled $151 million. Forbes estimates that Johnson’s income alone last year from race winnings, salary and endorsements totaled $17.6 million.
While Johnson’s critics viewed his style as bland, Johnson’s fans view him as a classy role model and a driver who was prone to working harder to overcome setbacks rather than complaining or blaming others.
Those fans include his teammate Chase Elliott, who proclaimed Johnson the best driver in NASCAR history.
“I don’t think it’s even close,” Elliott, son of Hall of Fame driver Bill Elliott, told reporters last month. “I don’t think [Johnson’s] ever gotten the respect that he deserves over the course of his career.”
Kyle Busch, the brash two-time and defending Cup champion who started his career as a teammate of Johnson’s at Hendrick, said Johnson has “left a phenomenal footprint on this sport” and that he’s always respected Johnson’s style of racing.
“We’ve never laid a door or a fender or anything on one another,” Busch said. “We’ve always raced each other really, really clean [and] have had great respect for one another.”
Speaking to reporters Friday, Johnson alluded to the negative fan reaction when he was winning so often, and how it’s turned positive as he bids farewell.
“It’s interesting now later in my career, the connection I have with fans,” Johnson said. “That was something I lacked in my earlier years and certainly when I was winning championships in a row.
“Everything I’ve done behind the wheel, I wouldn’t change a thing,” he said. “There is more of a fan piece that I wish would have gone a little different during my peak years.”
Although it’s his last full season, Johnson said he’s not retiring from racing. He said he might enter the Daytona 500 again “if the right opportunity came along” and that he’s open to racing in certain IndyCar Series events.
“This is not retirement from driving race cars,” he said in January. “This is just slowing down from 38 weekends a year and you certainly know the stress, pressure and grind that it takes. I’m ready to have some time back on my side and just have a better balance in life.”
During the news conference when Johnson announced his retirement from full-time racing, a reporter noted Johnson’s vanilla reputation and asked if Johnson’s “wild side” would be more evident to the public after this year.
“When my head is out of the racing space,” Johnson replied. “I’m not very smart. So, when I come to the track, I’ve got to try really hard.”
Then he quipped: “That prevents me from being the person you see that’s so carefree.”