Everything Jimmie Johnson does in the next nine months he'll do for the last time as a full-time NASCAR Cup Series driver. Going into this season with such a clear resolution and plan for his future hands him another advantage over so many other recent NASCAR drivers.
When you're a seven-time champion with 83 wins (tied for No. 6 all time) and undeniably in the NASCAR GOAT debate, you get to choose your exit. Johnson announced in November, shortly after the end of the 2019 season, that he plans to retire from full-time racing at the end of the 2020 season when his contract is up with Hendrick Motorsports, the only Cup team he's ever raced for.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to leave the sport on their own terms. Some drivers are forced out because of injuries, sponsorship issues or being unable to find a ride they want, and those drivers don't always have the benefit of knowing when it's their last Daytona 500 or their last race at this track or that one.
And it can be devastating to realize it's time to call it quits or to attempt to "understand why somebody doesn't want you" after a life dedicated to the sport, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. He was almost forced to leave the sport early for health reasons after a concussion sidelined him for the second half of the 2016 season but was able to return and run one last full-time season before retiring in 2017.
"If you got forced out for any reason, not knowing you just ran your last race, hell, I can't imagine how difficult that must be," said Earnhardt, a close friend and former teammate of Johnson's who is still "bothered now" by how much he misses racing.
Johnson and his then- crew chief, Chad Knaus, after winning their seventh championship in 2016. (Photo: John David Mercer, USA TODAY Sports)
Johnson, though, knows for sure this is it and can plan accordingly. At 44 years old, Johnson is the oldest full-time driver in the Cup Series and going into his 19th full-time season. His 20-something teammates jokingly call him grandpa.
For most of last season, the No. 48 Chevrolet driver was adamant that he wasn't done racing, as questions about his age and future swirled. But something hit him in October, and he said "it felt good to think" about retiring. He described it as a "profound moment," comparing it to when he realized he wanted to propose to his wife, Chandra.
"It was just that strong in my stomach," Johnson said at his retirement press conference in November. "I was like, 'Wow, this is what I want to do.' … I feel so fortunate that it showed up to me in that way."
So he gets one last go-around for a 36-race schedule (plus two exhibition events). Johnson has said several times that he's not done racing, but he's saying goodbye to NASCAR's brutally demanding schedule and going out his own way.
But even when you get to make the call yourself, it's still bittersweet.
"Retiring and ending your career is not a celebratory experience," said Earnhardt, who's now an NBC Sports analyst. "The decision to retire is a sad one because racing's all you ever did and all you ever wanted to do, and it's a strange thing to make the decision to walk away from it. Being able to do it on your own terms is more about walking away with as much dignity as you can have but also controlling that narrative of the sadness and the disappointment."
Whether drivers were forced out of NASCAR, chose their retirement date or even made unexpected returns, the sentiment among several recently retired drivers is largely the same.
If Johnson consulted them looking for advice about retirement and his final season – and he did with friends like Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon, another former teammate who's a part owner of the No. 48 car – they'd tell him to make a conscious effort to enjoy the little details of his farewell tour.
Earnhardt, Kasey Kahne, Gordon and Johnson in 2014. (Photo: Jasen Vinlove, USA TODAY Sports)
"If I would have known it was the last season – I didn't really, really know the whole time, but part of it I did – [I would have wanted to] just smile and laugh a little bit more," said Danica Patrick, who tearfully announced 2017 was her last full-time season two days before the final race of that year following a year marred by sponsorship issues.
Michael Waltrip, whose last Cup race was the 2017 Daytona 500, said he would tell Johnson just what he'd go back and tell himself with the advantage of hindsight: Try to slow down and enjoy the final, sure-to-be-whirlwind year.
"For me – and I've learned this over the last few years – I'd just like to stop and take a moment to look around, to shake someone's hand or make someone smile," said Waltrip, who's now part of FOX Sports' broadcast team. "Just appreciate what you have and how special it's been and never take it for granted. Take a minute to smile or soak it all in. You'll remember that forever."
For his part, Johnson appears to be trying to do that. He's letting go of the "Chasing 8" mantra he's had since he won No. 7 in 2016 in favor of something more reflective and appreciative: "One Final Time." In a Twitter video describing his change in mentality, he described racing for a statistic as "a bit out of character."
"It's my last full-time year with Mr. Hendrick, with my sponsors, with my team, out there with my family," he said. "This is just one final time, and it feels so good to be able to let go of that chasing part."
I’m not chasing anything. #OneFinalTimepic.twitter.com/MNZYk7YGgX
Gordon, Patrick and Jeff Burton explained that appreciating the little moments comes naturally when you're younger and still new to NASCAR's premier level. Early in their careers, they said they were still giddy and excited and even a little starstruck.
But the grind of constant competition on the track, for the spotlight and with sponsors – plus the grueling schedule and dragging a family around the country for nine months every year – slowly chips away at that.
"People ask me all the time, 'Was racing fun?'" Burton said. "Hell no, it wasn't fun. It's work. I loved it, and you can love something and have it not be fun.
"From the time you wake up to the time you go to sleep, you're competing for something if you're going to do this and do it well. And it takes the fun out of it. It doesn't take the passion out of it, but it's not really a game anymore."
Knowing it's your last full season – and likely last race at the majority (if not all) of NASCAR's 24 tracks – can be invigorating and reignites that youthful giddiness, Earnhardt said, especially when "a lot of the enjoyment gets zapped out of the job over the years."
Then the challenge becomes striking a balance between taking in the moment and holding onto that lifelong competitive fire to try to go out on top in some capacity. Easier said than done, and Johnson told For The Win he's "fearful" about succeeding at that.
Johnson, his daughters, daughters, Lydia and Genvieve, and Patrick at the 2018 Daytona 500. (Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
Gordon said he told Johnson the best way to find that balance is planning and being more informed than ever about everything, from maintaining a strong relationship with his crew chief, Cliff Daniels, and engineers to knowing ahead of time how each track will celebrate you. Limiting what could catch Johnson off guard could open him up to taking a relaxing moment here and there for himself, he said.
"There were definitely moments when I thought, 'OK, this is going to be the last time I do this,' " said Gordon, who retired from full-time racing at the end of the 2015 season but filled in for an injured Earnhardt for eight races in 2016.
"I felt like I had this weight lifted off of me where I could enjoy those moments because for so many years, I was so focused on competition, competition, win, win, win," the now-FOX Sports broadcaster explained. "And that can be exhausting and draining. So I felt like for my final year, I found a great balance between enjoying those moments and also pushing myself to stay competitive. And I think that's what Jimmie is going to deal with a lot."
And while there will surely be plenty of things Johnson knows he'll miss when he's not behind the wheel full time, Patrick said it's also "perfectly fine with being OK with not missing things," like time-consuming sponsor or media obligations or certain tracks you never ran well at.
"I don't know if that's how Jimmie will feel or not," Patrick said. "There's something that allows you to have that latitude to say, 'I think this is going to be the end,' and I would imagine there will be a few things where he'll be like, 'Won't miss that!' And good, because otherwise, you should stay."
At Johnson's retirement press conference in November, he said his team's recent slump had "very little implication" on his decision to walk away at the end of the 2020 season. But amid the worst stretch of his storied career, it's also impossible to ignore.
Sure, he has 83 wins, by far the most among active drivers, and until Kyle Busch won the 2019 Cup Series championship, Johnson was the only active driver with more than one, including an unprecedented five in a row. But his last trip to Victory Lane was back in June of 2017, which tied Cale Yarborough on the all-time wins list. And last season, Johnson missed the playoffs, which were established in 2004, for the first time in his career.
Johnson at Phoenix Raceway in 2019. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
With so many checkered flags, and having already tied Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with a record seven championships, Gordon said there's "no doubt" Johnson's put some extra pressure on himself to win one more race and at least try to contend for another championship.
"I can tell Jimmie doesn't want to put that added pressure on himself or let others know that's on his mind," Gordon said. "But I know, deep down inside, that's important to him."
But if the last two seasons are any indication, Johnson and his 48 team have a long way to go. In 2018 and 2019 combined, he had five top-5 finishes with an average finish of about 17th and eight total DNFs. He did, however, win the 2019 Clash at Daytona International Speedway, a 75-lap exhibition event, but it came after he ignited a massive wreck that took out almost the entire field.
He also parted ways with longtime crew chief Chad Knaus after their winless 2018 campaign, and again changed crew chiefs in 2019 from Kevin Meendering to Daniels – only this time it was almost two-thirds of the way into the season.
"We've all had the peaks and the valleys, and when you're a seven-time champion, that valley's a hell of a lot lower," Burton said. "In my opinion, he's not coming back for a farewell tour. He's coming back to redeem the last two years. That's what I believe. He's too competitive not to, and I just think that's where he is.
"I don't think it's about winning a race or making the playoffs. I think it's about doing better than the last two years have been, and if he does that, he will make the playoffs."
If his final season doesn't go particularly well, Waltrip joked Johnson can always do what he does and walk by his two Daytona 500 trophies (Johnson won in 2006 and 2013) – or, you know, any of the many others – and feel a little better knowing he did something incredible.
Johnson after winning the 2013 Daytona 500. (Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports)
Not that anyone would expect a fierce competitor and all-around athlete like Johnson to give anything less than his all. But throwing 100 percent at his final season – along with appreciating the little things that would have otherwise been mundane – could help minimize any regrets, Burton added.
Johnson is headed into his 19th full-time season, and no one does anything that long without accumulating a few disappointments along the way. But Burton and Mark Martin would assure him that if he doesn't hold back, he probably won't lose any sleep over his last full-time season, regardless of what happens.
"I think he would do fine with [not getting one more win]," said Martin, who retired from full-time racing twice and called it a career in 2013 with 40 wins (but no championship).
"You always give everything you've got, 100 percent. And then really, you just have to accept the results for what they are, whether they're amazing and incredible or a disappointment or anything in between."
Earnhardt Jr. said that if Johnson can find the right balance this year, a feeling of innocence could return, allowing him to approach the year like a rookie driver just eager to be on the track.
"I didn't run very good in my final year, but I don't remember that," Earnhardt said. "I remember it being fun and how much I enjoyed being around my guys, and I had a great time."
Regardless of what happens, drivers agreed it will have only a little, if any, impact on Johnson's legacy in the sport – unless, of course, he wins a record-breaking eighth championship.
Johnson and team owner Rick Hendrick at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2019. (Photo: Jasen Vinlove, USA TODAY Sports)
He's unquestionably in the GOAT of NASCAR debate – even leading it, depending on who you ask – and he's not done racing. Whether it's in NASCAR, another top-level series or even on two wheels, Johnson has made it clear his retirement is simply from NASCAR's exhausting full-time schedule, as he looks for "a better balance in life."
Not winning a race or missing the playoffs again might be a "sour" ending for a seven-time champ, Burton said. But when Johnson and his career in NASCAR are memorialized years from now, that's not what people will remember.
"I would [tell Johnson to] act however you want to act, say whatever you want to say, do whatever you want to do," Patrick said.
"You didn't arrive at this place where people are doing interviews about your last season because of anything other than you're a legend and you're a fantastic driver with pages of accomplishments. So this last season should purely be whatever you want it to be."
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