Jimmie Johnson brings vivid memories in return to home track

FONTANA, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 28: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet, speaks ahead of practice at Auto Club Speedway on February 28, 2020 in Fontana, California. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Eighteen years ago, Jimmie Johnson came to Auto Club Speedway with no job security.

This weekend, Johnson returns to the two-mile track for his last ride as a full-time NASCAR Cup Series driver with 83 victories, seven championships and nothing left to prove.

That wasn’t the case in 2002 in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports. Despite assurances to the contrary, Johnson thought he was on a short leash with the organization—even though he had won the pole for the Daytona 500 as a rookie and followed with another pole at Talladega in the ninth race of the season.

A week later, Johnson came to Fontana and qualified fourth for the NAPA Auto Parts 500. He led three times for 62 laps, the final stint a 14-lap run to the checkered flag after the final caution. In the 10th start of his rookie season—and his 13th Cup start overall—Johnson earned his first victory at the speedway closest to his childhood home in El Cajon.

“That’s the day I knew I was going to be employed,” Johnson quipped during a Friday visit to the media center at the speedway, site of Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

“Jeff Gordon handed me all of his championship equipment from the year before, and they told me they’d be patient and I had time, but in my heart I didn’t think that was the case, and I knew I needed to win. So to leave here with a trophy meant that I’d have a job for a few years, and I was pretty stoked about that.”

To honor Johnson on his “farewell tour,” the speedway commissioned a mural of the seven-time champ, and wife Chandra and daughters Genevieve and Lydia will wave the green flag to start the race after a five-wide salute to the driver.

“Just really excited for it,” Johnson said. “This year, we’re really trying hard to enjoy as much as we can and really take any opportunity that comes our way. This is certainly a different one for us and my family. I’m very thankful that the track came to us with that suggestion to get my family up there in the stands.

“I think pre-race will be full of emotions. They will have a chance to come across the stage with me and be introduced with their responsibilities. Being a part of the five-wide salute at the front of the field, and then see those hands up there in that flag stand is going to be cool.”

Greg Engle