Jimmie Johnson closed out his legendary NASCAR career Sunday at Phoenix Raceway Sunday. In his last race as a fulltime driver in the NASCAR Cup series the 7-time champion finished a strong fifth, the best finishing driver outside the Championship 4 who were racing for a title.
His final day and his final race was something he said he had looked forward to.
“Really just excited,” Johnson said. “Excited to do this, excited to get on track and have this final event. For me the hardest point was about this time last year when thoughts were heavy on my mind and I was going to make the decision and made the decision to myself and my family, then had to go to Rick’s house and talk that through with Mr. Hendrick. So that point in time was probably the most emotional and most difficult.
“And as the year has gone by, many moments of reflection and just pride. Then all of that rolled into today and just very excited to be on track.
“It was nice to be competitive out there and run the top 5, finish in the top 5, but my bucket is full. NASCAR has been so wonderful for me. This journey has been more than I could have ever dreamed of or expected or hoped for.
“The last couple years on track weren’t as I dreamed up, but I’ve experienced the highest of highs and worked with the greatest people, been with one team through this entire journey, and just very thankful for all the people that have helped me get here.
“All those emotions and all that pride rolled up into just a huge smile today walking out on the grid.”
He said he wasn’t aware that he had finish just behind the Championship 4.
“I didn’t realize that was the case. And Evie told me that on pit lane. She said, ‘Daddy, I think you won’. She said, ‘No, the first four cars were in the championship and you beat everybody else’,” he said. “She brought it to my attention and had her own version of my winning, which I appreciated.
“Just a good competitive day. I could see the 11 up there and was slowly catching him but just kind of ran out of laps. It was nice to keep my eyes forward and have a great car and race that hard all day long.”
While Johnson was being highlighted and celebrated, rightfully so, his wasn’t the only final time Sunday.
Clint Bowyer competed in his final Cup race as a fulltime driver he will move to the Fox Sports booth next season. Bowyer finished 14th Sunday.
“I appreciate all the texts and well wishes, but I was ready for the green flag this morning,” Bowyer said.” That was kind of emotional. Seriously, that was a fun day. I want to thank everyone at Stewart-Haas Racing as well as the partners who have made the last four years so special. I have had a lot of people help me in my career and certainly wouldn’t be here without them. I don’t know if this has sunk in yet, but I think this will all hit me when we get to Daytona next season.”
Matt Kenseth came back to competition for Chip Ganassi Racing after Kyle Larson was let go in April. He took over the No. 42 Chevrolet and finished 25th Sunday. With Ross Chastain moving up to the Cup ride next season, Kenseth probably raced for the final time in NASCAR Sunday, unless someone else needs a relief driver.
Chad Knaus, best known as crew chief for Johnson, called his last race from atop a pit box Sunday. He moves into an executive role at Hendrick Motorsports starting next season. In his last race as a crew chief, Knaus’ driver William Byron finished 9th.
“To go to the racetrack in Daytona next year and not seeing Chad on the box and Jimmie in a car is a big adjustment,” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “I went through it with Jeff Gordon, I went through it with Dale, went through it with Terry Labonte and a lot of other drivers along the way. You have to adapt and change.
“I think the good news is that Chad is moving up to help the whole organization. He’s not leaving. He’ll be there. Jimmie wants to do some things and has a bucket list that he wants to go after, so we’re all happy for him and his family.”
“I feel good about our company. We’ve got young crew chiefs, young drivers, and they’re super competitive. I think we’ll be good for years to come.”
Several teams will fade away in 2021. Go FAS racing will move to a part time Cup operation while Leavine and Germain sold their charters and will cease to exist. The Germain closing leaves Ty Dillion without a ride for next season. He finished 21st Sunday.
“All I can say is thank you to everyone at Germain Racing for a wonderful four years,” Dillon said. “It has been an honor to start my Cup career with this team and I can’t say thank you enough. To represent GEICO for four seasons was a privilege and I appreciate Bob Germain and GEICO for taking a chance on me as a rookie. I have so much love and appreciation for all those who have had a hand in this journey.”
Erik Jones, who finished 22nd, had his final race in the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. He leaves to make room for Christopher Bell (17th Sunday) next season. Jones meanwhile heads to the No. 43 Chevy with Richard Petty Motorsports. Bubba Wallace was 15th in his final run in the No. 43. Wallace moves to the No. 23 a new team founded by Michal Jordan and Denny Hamlin.
The No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy, which hit the track for the team in 2008 with Dale Earnhardt Jr. raced for the final time Sunday with Alex Bowman behind the wheel. Bowman, who takes over the No. 48 of Johnson next season, finished 16th.
On the media front, Winston Kelley, a regular on Motor Racing Network broadcasts for over 30 years, called his last race in a fulltime role Sunday. Kelly is the executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. And Krista Voda announced on her Facebook page Saturday morning that she won’t be returning to NBC next year.
“I was told NBC will no longer be utilizing a host for their NASCAR programming, and unfortunately they didn’t envision me fulfilling other roles with the network.” she wrote.