As retirements go, Jimmie Johnson’s hiatus from NASCAR could best be compared to the dating rationalization, “We were on a break.”
True, in the two years after Johnson said goodbye to full-time racing on the stock-car circuit, he cheated on the sport that made him famous by running Indy and IMSA cars. He ran in the Indianapolis 500 and finished no better than 19th in two tries. This year, he even plans to drive in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
But now, Johnson has doubled down on his return to NASCAR, not only running a part-time schedule but also being part-owner of a team started by the legendary Richard Petty. Johnson’s first start is Sunday in the Daytona 500.
“It’s what I know and what I love,” Johnson said. “I really wanted to experience other cars and other tracks before that door closed to me. … The grind of having 19 years in Cup racing took its toll and I just wanted to drive other cars and try other things.
NASCAR’s 75th season is about to begin. Joe Gibbs Racing has a younger look and how did Kyle Busch get a 3½- year sentence to a Mexican prison?
“Some thought it was crazy ... or maybe foolish or wild that I would try and do IndyCar. But that was for me. That’s what the last two years have been and really what I intended for this year was to just fill that fun bucket and experience bucket.”
Because he was classified as a “non-chartered” car he had to qualify to make the field. He did that Wednesday night when he posted the 23rd fastest time in single-car qualifying, the fastest among the six non-chartered cars. As the fastest of the non-charter teams in Wednesday’s qualifying session, Johnson and Travis Pastrana will start 39th and 40th on Sunday. Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson are on the front row, having posted the two fastest times Wednesday.
Johnson likely would have a spot on the Mt. Rushmore of the modern-day NASCAR circuit. It’s certainly something his fans believe as they were critical when NASCAR entered a Rose Parade float and had car depictions of Petty, Dale Earnhardt Sr., and Jeff Gordon but not Johnson. Earnhardt, Petty and Johnson have each won a record seven season NASCAR titles. Johnson had an unprecedented five straight championships from 2006 to 2010.
Success has followed Johnson his entire career, beginning in 2002 when he won the pole position in his first Daytona 500. He won his first Cup Series race that year in his 13th start at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, the closest track to where he grew up in El Cajon.
“In my 19 years, a lot of crazy things happened,” Johnson said. “I could have never predicted any of it. I still look back and can’t believe we had five [championships] in a row. In the moment it happened so quick and we’re so focused on the next thing that some of it feels like it didn’t happen. I look back on it and shake my head.”
His return might be more difficult than expected from such an icon. The reason is Johnson, 47, has never competitively driven the Next Gen car, which was introduced last year by NASCAR.
“He’s probably asked me more questions [than I’ve asked him], which is a little weird,” said Erik Jones, 26, who along with rookie Noah Gragson, 24, are Johnson’s teammates and employees at Legacy Motor Club. “I’ve known Jimmie for a lot of years and never really had the chance to work with him like this. It’s been fun to see how his mind works on some of this stuff. For at least a minute, it is odd.
“We were at Phoenix testing and he was asking me some questions. He was asking me some questions the other day about coming [to Daytona]. It’s weird I didn’t think Jimmie would ever be asking me anything along the way in my career.”
Johnson has said he’ll race between five and 10 races this year. In addition to Daytona, he has only announced one other event, the first street race in Chicago on July 2. He is not expected to drive at Fontana on Feb. 26 in the last race before the track is reconfigured from two miles to a half-mile.
In the meantime, he’ll be devoting the time he’s not racing into being an owner.
“I’m still defining that role,” Johnson said. “I’ve never been to the track as an owner. … I would say the amount of time required being an owner I completely took for granted all my years as a driver. It’s a lot of work especially with a multicar team. And a lot of work inside the walls of the building, the marketing, public relations, sales and, of course, competition. Every office and hallway I go in there are questions that have to be answered.”
Legacy Motor Club is the rebranded version of Petty GMS, having been bought by Maury Gallagher and Johnson. Petty retains a small interest and is occasionally available to be photographed.
“I do know myself and the selfish world I live in. And I would rather win. But if one of the others wins, I suspect it will be like watching one of your children do well. So, I’ll still be very happy.”
— Jimmie Johnson, on rather seeing himself win than his teammates
“I’ve been restructuring our workforce to bring in people I know,” Johnson said. “That part has been difficult because in any merger of a company there is a turnover in people. It’s tough to be involved in that because it’s affecting other people’s lives.”
One move that Johnson has engineered was to help bring in, for NASCAR, a rather unusual sponsor for Jones’ car: Guns N‘ Roses.
Even though Johnson is one of the team bosses, he candidly admitted he would be more excited to see himself win than one of his new teammates.
“I do know myself and the selfish world I live in,” Johnson said. “And I would rather win. But if one of the others wins, I suspect it will be like watching one of your children do well. So, I’ll still be very happy.”
Johnson’s two children are being reared in Charlotte, N.C., a far cry from the smaller tight-knit city of El Cajon. It was there that he started his love affair with motor sports, racing motorcycles when he was 4.
“My grandparents owned a motorcycle shop in El Cajon,” Johnson said. “That was my entry point for racing. The El Cajon I remember is the one where I had a lot of opportunities to ride my motor bike. So thankful I grew up in that area at that point in time.
The emergency care Damar Hamlin received was a byproduct of extensive emergency planning. In motorsports, medical personnel train for such situations.
“I feel like in my generation, the El Cajon area was just a hotbed for the motocross industry. At lot of champions were from there, Broc Glover, Rick Johnson and many more. Those were my heroes. Those were the guys you looked up to.”
Johnson is less connected to El Cajon and the San Diego area than he used to be. He no longer has an auto dealership in the area and has moved his charity event to Charlotte.
“[Going back to the San Diego area] has slowed down quite a bit,” Johnson said. “Life can be really busy with a 12- and 9-year-old. But we are still very active giving back to the school area in which I grew up.”
The Jimmie Johnson Foundation has awarded more than $13 million since 2006, mostly to public schools in San Diego County, Muskogee, Okla., and North Carolina.
Fans expecting to see him in the No. 48 car will be disappointed. He raced under that number for 686 starts with Hendrick Motorsports. But after Johnson retired from NASCAR two years ago, the number went to Hendrick teammate Bowman, who is on the poll.
“Someone brought up that I haven’t been on [pit road] on a different stop sign even though I left for two years,” Johnson said, who also drove a No. 48 car in IndyCar and IMSA. “I’m going to have to remind my spotter to remind me [where to stop.]”
Johnson will be driving the No. 84 — get it, 48 backward. Also, in what likely is not a coincidence, it is also the number of lifetime wins he will have with one more victory.
Could it come at Daytona?
“If I survive and get through the first two stages [of racing], there’s really a shot that I have to win this race.”
He may have lost his number but not his confidence.
Get our high school sports newsletter
Prep Rally is devoted to the SoCal high school sports experience, bringing you scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.