Over the last couple decades, NASCAR has endured a lot.
The sport experienced a massive boom in popularity during the early 2000s, before a steep decline in the early 2010s. Now, the sport is again rebounding and coming back even stronger. Through all the ups and downs, however, there has been one consistent force in the sport: Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson was born on September 17, 1975 in El Cajon, California. Surprisingly, he did not begin stock car racing until he was in his early twenties because of his love for off-road racing.
Off-roading is by far the most popular form of racing on the west coast and, since he grew up in California, Johnson’s first love was off-road motorcycles and trucks. He started racing motorcycles when he was just four years old and shortly thereafter began racing trucks as well.
He dominated every series he raced in, accumulating over 25 wins and six championships across three different off-road series.
Despite his success, Johnson decided to transition to racing on asphalt in 1998. He entered the now defunct American Speed Association (ASA) full-time and drove part-time in the NASCAR Busch Series (now NASCAR Xfinity Series). His off-road success followed him to stock cars, he won the ASA Pat Schauer Rookie title. The next season, he won two races and finished third in the standings.
Johnson then took his first step to the big leagues when he ran full-time in the Busch Series in 2000 for Herzog Motorsports. This is where he faced his first real obstacles as he had two mediocre seasons for Herzog. He finished 10th in his first season with no wins and, despite notching one victory on the year, only finished eighth in 2001.
Although it would have been easy to chalk Johnson up as another off-road racer that could not cut it in NASCAR, superstar driver Jeff Gordon and legendary owner Rick Hendrick decided to take a chance on him. Johnson made the leap to the NASCAR Cup Series in 2002 when he took over the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet, which was co-owned by Gordon and Hendrick.
Something happened for Johnson in the Cup Series that did not occur in the Busch Series. He won his first race at Auto Club Speedway in just his 13th career start and went on to win a total of three races in 2002 that tied Tony Stewart’s record for rookies.
Then, in 2003 and 2004, he really broke on the scene. He finished second in the standings for both seasons and recorded a total of 11 wins across both years, including eight in 2004. After just three seasons, Johnson was officially a NASCAR superstar.
He came back down to earth a bit in 2005 when he finished fifth with four wins, but then embarked on the greatest stretch of any driver in NASCAR history.
From 2006 to 2010, Johnson won the Cup Series championship each year. He remains the only driver to win five straight championships. The amount of wins he stacked up over this stretch is mind boggling. He had five wins in 2006, including his first Daytona 500, 10 in 2007, seven in 2008 and 2009, and six in 2010. To put it into perspective, the 35 wins he amassed over this stretch would place him 23rd on the NASCAR all-time wins list. He earned more wins in just five years than most drivers can even dream of.
His string of success made Johnson a polarizing figure in the sport. Fans either really loved him or really hated him and there was no in-between. Those who stood by him argued he was as good as Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty and that he was a great all-around person.
Others felt that Johnson often came across as a sore loser whenever he lost and that he only won because of the elite equipment that Hendrick gave him. The fact that Johnson was even mentioned in the same breath as Earnhardt and Petty came across as blasphemous to his detractors. He also shouldered much of the blame for NASCAR’s steep decline in popularity as the drop in attendance and ratings coincided with Johnson’s championship streak. Many fans admitted that the races became boring when they knew No. 48 was going to win every time.
Regardless of how the fans felt, nobody could deny that Johnson’s five-year stretch was incredible and will likely never again be seen in the sport.
After a two year break that saw him finish sixth and third in the standings, Johnson returned to championship form in 2013. He opened the year by winning his second Daytona 500 and continued to be consistent all season. Despite having to battle hard with Matt Kenseth during the Chase for the Cup, Johnson held on to win his sixth championship. He finished the year with six wins and 24 top tens.
2014 and 2015 were rough seasons for Jimmie. For the first time in his career, he finished outside the top ten in points, finishing 11th in 2014. Despite the disappointing season, he still recorded four wins. In 2015, Johnson improved slightly, finishing tenth with five wins, but many felt that this may be the beginning of the end for the legendary driver. It seemed as if he would not be able to tie Petty and Earnhardt’s record of seven championships.
As many great athletes do, Johnson rose to the occasion and proved all of his doubters wrong. In 2016, he won four races and entered the final race of the year at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a chance to win his record-tying championship. After fellow championship contenders Carl Edwards and Joey Logano crashed with 10 laps to go, Johnson emerged to win his fifth race of the year and his seventh championship. He was now undoubtedly one of the top three drivers ever.
After 2016, it seemed almost inevitable that Johnson would win his record-breaking eighth championship, but the driver had fallen on some tough times.
He won three races early in the 2017 season, but had not recorded a victory since. He finished 10th in the standings in 2017 before finishing a disappointing 14th in 2018 and 18th in 2019. 2018 and 2019 are the only seasons in his career that Johnson has not recorded a victory.
2019 was especially hard for Johnson as it was his first year without crew chief Chad Knaus and sponsor Lowe’s and the first year he failed to make the Playoffs. He began showing signs of improvement towards the end of the season when Cliff Daniels took over as crew chief, but it was nowhere near the dominance fans were accustomed to seeing.
As a result, speculation began to swirl over how much longer Johnson would race. He consistently shook off retirement questions during the season and even went as far to say that he saw himself racing past 2020.
On November 20, however, Johnson finally gave his fans an answer: 2020 would be his final full-time season.
Fans were sad and disappointed that the sport was losing one of its icons, but Johnson was quick to give them hope for his last season. He said at his retirement press conference, “I still have that fire and I am coming back next year and it’s not a mail-it-in year. It is a year when we’re going to win races and compete for a championship.” The thought of Johnson going all out for an eighth championship in his final year gives chills to any race fan. Hopefully, he will be able to get it done.
Regardless of what happens in 2020, Johnson will go down as one of the greatest racers and people NASCAR has ever seen. On the track, he is tied for sixth all-time with 83 victories to go along with his seven championships. He was also arguably the greatest racer of both the 2000s and 2010s.
What goes unnoticed, however, is Johnson’s impact off the track. He founded the Jimmie Johnson Foundation in 2006, which helps families, children, and communities in need. He has also donated to various projects to help children, assisted the American Red Cross, and served as a spokesperson advocating leadership in young girls.
Many of his fellow competitors also have the utmost respect for Johnson and he is well-liked throughout the sport. Hendrick even went as far to say that Johnson was “too perfect.”
Although he was disliked during his championship streak, most fans seem to have come to appreciate Johnson as well. This is mostly because he always goes the extra mile, (pun intended).
While some drivers may dread signing autographs or taking pictures, he seems to enjoy it. Johnson is always engaged whenever a fan talks to him and will stick around for hours signing autographs and taking pictures. In a sports world where athletes seem more and more unwilling to interact with fans, Johnson is a refreshing anomaly.
Jimmie Johnson’s rise from off-road racer to NASCAR legend is remarkable. If he retired today, he would arguably be the greatest driver of all time, but he is not done yet. 2020 has the potential to be one of Johnson’s best seasons ever and every fan should appreciate watching No. 48 race one last time.