This wasn’t the type of farewell tour seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson was looking for, finishing his brilliant career in a COVID-19 pandemic with no packed stands and more importantly no wins.
That’s right, the 44-year-old Johnson has been accustomed to competing and winning races in front of big crowds during the majority of his 20-year career, earning 83 wins with Hendrick Motorsports. His seven series titles tie him for most in Cup history with the late Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty.
Johnson will be competing in the Cup series’ second doubleheader in history this weekend at Michigan International Speedway, finishing 12th in the FireKeepers Casino 400 on Saturday and the Consumers Energy 400 Sunday — both races without fans.
And, Johnson will be trying to end a 114-race winless streak with his last victory coming at Dover in 2017, the year after he won his last series championship.
Johnson hasn’t enjoyed his best finishes at MIS, leading laps and races before troubles late in races during much of his career. He was 0-for-24 at the two-mile superspeedway before finally finding Victory Lane in the June race in 2014, one of three podium finishes (top three spots) at the track. His last top-10 came in June 2017.
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Johnson is sitting 18th in points, 25 behind his Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron, who is holding onto the final spot for the 16-driver field for the playoffs which consists of the final 10 races. He missed the playoffs for the first time as a full-time driver last season.
After this weekend’s doubleheader, the series will have four more races before the playoffs begin and Johnson will more than likely need a win to get in the field. Ten drivers have already locked in spots by earning wins.
“I want to win a race and get in the playoffs, I want to win more than a race, but winning a race and getting in the playoffs has been my goal all along and nothing has changed,” said Johnson of his goals for his final season.
Johnson has competed in 19 of the 20 races this season, missing the race at Indianapolis after testing positive for COVID-19. He raced the next weekend at Kentucky, finishing 18th. His best finish was third at Bristol, his second top-five of the season. His first came at Las Vegas when he placed fifth in the second race of the year.
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Johnson and his competitors competed in four races before the pandemic halted action back in mid-March. The NASCAR Cup Series was the first motorsports series to return back in mid-May at Darlington where Johnson finished eighth in the second race of the week at that track.
It’s not like Johnson hasn’t been competitive.
He was leading on the final lap of Stage 1 in the return to racing at Darlington before losing control of his car and crashing. He finished second in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend, but was disqualified after his car failed a post-race technical inspection.
At Talladega, he was set to take the lead with three laps remaining before making contact with series points leader Kevin Harvick, leading to his No. 48 Chevrolet Camaro spinning out of control, resulting in a 13th place finish.
Yes, things are anything but normal in Johnson’s final season with drivers no longer getting practice sessions and qualifying before races like in past years.
“It’s different, but I think once we all had a couple reps at it I don’t think it’s hurt the racing in any way and it’s given us a few days during the week back for the crew guys and improves quality of life for drivers and everyone alike,” Johnson said. “And, not having a need for a backup car and multiple back-up cars for organizations, it’s saving teams a ton of money, so I don’t know what things look like in the future, but there’s been more wins for the industry with this altered schedule than there’s been things working against us.”
On competing at MIS in a doubleheader, Johnson said: “The doubleheader won’t be bad on a track like Michigan, it won’t overly challenge us. They believe we have a rep at Pocono, so we’ll go into it more refined and more prepared to pull it off, so it shouldn’t be an issue.”
Johnson finished 21st in Race No. 1 at Pocono and 16th in Race No. 2 in late June.
Johnson’s former teammates, four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have retired in the past several years now leaving him as the greybeard and mentoring teammates in 24-year-old Chase Elliott, 27-year-old Alex Bowman and Byron, 22. Elliott and Bowman are locked in the playoff field, each earning a win this season.
And, while Johnson’s Cup career comes to a close after this season, he plans to remain busy, hoping to compete in some IndyCar road course races next year.
Johnson took a day-long test with Chip Ganassi Racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course on July 28, meeting with the owner and five-time series champion Scott Dixon to discuss the car.
“I’ve been friends with Scott for a long time and to work next to him and watch him impressed me even more since I’ve been a huge, huge fan, appreciated our friendship and was just very thankful that he took all the time to help me get ready, to walk me through data, it was really a great experience and there’s a reason he’s a multi-time champion,” Johnson said.
When asked if he would like to compete in the Indianapolis 500, Johnson replied: “It’s probably passed me up. I think the cars are a lot safer with the windscreen on them, and all of my conversations right now with teams in my interest would be in a road course schedule next year.”