Jimmie Johnson: ‘This is what I want to do’

Jimmie Johnson has always been a family man. That was no more evident Thursday that when his daughters Genevieve, 9, and Lydia, 6, were brought up to the stage at Hendrick Motorsports to introduce the guy they just know as dad.

The 7-time champion had announced Wednesday that he would retire at the 2020 season, partly to spend time with his family.  Although their reaction when told the news was somewhat less than excited.

“Yesterday when we were having breakfast, I was showing the girls the video we pushed out on social media,” Johnson said. “Breakfast is a very important part of the day, a focal point for my kids. Lydia was midway through her pancakes when I started the video and could not be bothered by the video and wanted me to pass the butter (laughs).”

Johnson was joined on stage by the only team owner in the Cup series he’s ever raced for, Rick Hendrick.

“It’s been interesting because I’ve worked through my headspace, and then came to see Rick (Hendrick) and spent some time with Jeff (Gordon),” Johnson said about the process. “That’s all three weeks to a month ago, if not a little longer. I’m a little further down the road and I’m so excited to be where I am today. To be in this press conference today and tell everyone what my plans are. So, I’m very excited and I’m just ready to get 2020 started.”

“The process has been interesting; telling friends, telling my team yesterday. To sit the team down, the people that have worked on the 48 from the beginning, that was probably one of the harder ones I think that I had. Chad (Knaus) and I went to dinner the other night; I did catch his attention when I mentioned it to him. But it’s been an interesting process and a day you can never really plan for. It’s here and I’m just thankful to just be with family and friends. This man right here (Rick Hendrick) and all he’s done for my life.”

For his part team owner Hendrick summed it up in one word:

“Shocked,” he said smiling.

“Every time one of these drivers call me and come to my house, I know that’s not a good situation (laughs). Everybody knows Jimmie; he processes everything. When he’s made up his mind, he’s not wishy-washy at all.”

“He’s done so much for us and for the sport,” Hendrick added. “If you just said I’m going to make a list of what the perfect driver would be, from the talent to the ability to work with sponsors and athlete, he’s just raising the bar for our company. From fitness to charity, it’s unbelievable how perfect he is. So, whatever he wanted, I wanted for him. I told him that this year; I said we’re not on a clock, you tell me what you want to do and we’ll make it work. I thought he deserved that from our company.

“I knew the day would come; I should be the one retiring (laughs). I’m happy for him because I want to see what the next chapter is. He has set the foundation and the benchmark for us at this company that we’ll always stride to get there. He’s going to be a buddy, a friend, and go do things together. He’s just an unbelievable person and an unbelievable friend. So, he’s not just a driver, he’s family.”

Johnson said that he never really knew when the time would be right to retire.

“Many of you that know me, I like to have a plan and I like to think things through,” he said. “I did plenty of that through the spring and summer, just knowing I have to make a decision.”

“In my mind, I felt like I needed to make a decision by the end of the year. Nothing really hit me in the gut with the feeling that I wanted to stay or stop at the end of 2020. As the year went on and we rolled into October, the feeling just became real. It really did and it felt good to think about.”

“It was such a profound moment that I really take it back to the moment in time where I knew I wanted to buy a ring for her (Chandra); it was just that strong in my stomach. I was like ‘wow, this is what I want to do’. So, of course I had to talk to Chandra and then take some time to kind of speak to Rick and Jeff.”

“I feel very, very good about my decision. It’s time. I feel so fortunate that it showed up to me in that way. I’ve talked to greats like Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr.; everyone has had their own journey. Some of those guys maybe set a date and left before their heart really wanted to leave. There are a lot of other athletes that their time is called, and they don’t have that opportunity to pick their own. I feel very blessed and fortunate to have this opportunity. It just feels right.”

Johnson said it’s all about balance.

“I’ve been dreaming of racing as much as I could for forty years,” he said. “I started racing dirt bikes at five and I’ve chased this that whole way.”

“We waited to start our family a little bit later, just trying to be smart with timing in some respects. I know myself and I knew that at some point, that was really going to really weigh on me to want to be around a lot more. It’s hard to believe they are nine and six now, but I just have a fire in me to push for that and stay at the track. I still have that fire and I am coming back next year. After that, I’m ready to have some time back on my side and just have a better balance in life.”

He was also quick to add that next season he won’t simply be riding around.

“Next year is not a ‘mail it in’ year,” Johnson said. “We’re going to win races and contend for a championship.”

He also isn’t shutting the door on racing.

“This is not a retirement from driving race cars,” he said. “This is just slowing down from 38 weekends a year, and you certainly know the stress, pressure and grind that it takes. 19 years in Cup and 2 years in the Xfinity Series, plus everything before that, it’s been a heck of a run and we’ll keep going.”

While Johnson won’t race open wheel on ovals, he might be tempted to try a road course in the Indy Series.

“I wouldn’t mind going and getting dirty again, with the history I have of off-road racing in the dirt,” he said. “I’ll just kind of wait and see. Most importantly, I feel like I need to take a deep breath and just see what comes from there. Put my family first instead of racing first for once and take it from there.”

Whatever he decides he won’t have to search for a ride in another series.

“I saw them all pinging me on social media, like hey, dibs! Come race here (laughter). Even the World of Outlaws sent me a tweet.”

As for his legacy:

“I feel that I’m a people-person and I’ve built a lot of extremely meaningful relationships in this industry and in this garage area,” Johnson said. “I go back to my younger years and various teams and series that I ran in, and there’s always been a feeling there in a friendship and a bond and a respect. Ultimately, it’s that respect and being one of the good guys out there on the track. When I think back on my 18 years so far, my mind goes to those memories and to the people that I share those memories with. Notwithstanding, holding a trophy somewhere. So, it’s much more of that headspace of being remembered than stats. It’s more of that heartfelt thing than stats.”

“When history looks back at him, they’ll say that this guy was an unbelievable athlete, father, charities, and he and Chani give so much away,” Hendrick said. “In every box that you check in life (like) what you do with kids, how you raise your family, and you’re a champion. And every sponsor that he’s had, they love him to death. I just think the stats speak for themselves.  But, people are going to remember the man, Jimmie Johnson.”

At the end of the 45 minutes, Johnson took the time to thank his fans, supporters throughout the years and most importantly his team owner, and friend.

“I’m just so thankful to literally have chased the dream since I was a kid, to race,” he said chocking back tears. “And, I’m just very, very thankful for relationships that I’ve built in this sport. My mind is running wild on me right now and I’m trying not to cry. But just, thank you.”

Greg Engle