Jimmie Johnson fought two battles last season.
The first was on track as his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team struggled to reach the performance level it is accustomed to. Johnson went winless for the first time in his career and finished a career-worst 14th in the standings while earning career lows in top-10 (11) and top-five (two) finishes.
As for the second battle, that was on social media. Johnson found that for some reason, people on social media channels took on a narrative that he didn’t care anymore. Or that he was going to retire. Even accusing him of being washed up.
By October, the seven-time champion had refuted each theory enough to where he offered an even stronger response during one of the few times he decided to engage fans.
The tweet soon took on a life of its own when a fan created a shirt with the response. After Johnson saw it a few weeks later at Martinsville, he turned around and designed more to distribute and even sold them on his website at one time.
“I’m just having fun with it,” Johnson said Tuesday. “I know in my heart why I’m out there and what I’m doing, and I’ve read plenty that suggest I should hang it up, so I guess there is a little behind the statement [and] why I was happy to have those shirts made and distributed. But I’m out there doing my thing and racing, and I know in my heart where I’m at with racing and my abilities and the years that I have left.”
The comments and questions continue even though Johnson signed an extension to remain behind the wheel through the 2020 season. Earlier this week Scott Dixon posted a video on Twitter showing him working out while wearing the shirt. Seeing negative feedback isn’t exactly motivation for Johnson, but he also isn’t going to shy away from it, given the right opportunity.
“I try to find funny ways to engage with it,” he said. “Even when I was winning 10 [races] a year, there were people saying awful things on there, so it’s not engaging with the haters, it’s just occasionally something pops in my head for a witty response.
“I don’t know. I guess maybe with the ‘I’m not done yet’ part I got tired of people suggesting this is my last year … whatever it might be. So, I don’t feel like I always engage with them, but maybe there’s witty opportunities I like to take advantage of.”
Hendrick has made multiple changes as it looks to get back to its winning ways. Last year the company shifted all four of its teams into the same building, ensuring key personnel like crew chiefs and engineers would all be working closer together. Johnson is going to be paired with a new crew chief this season in Kevin Meendering, and neither lacks confidence in a turnaround in 2019.
Even after one bad season in 17 years, Johnson’s résumé undoubtedly should stand on its own. Is it offensive to him that others try to tell him when to hang up the helmet?
“Résumé and then my own, like, I get to say when I’m done,” Johnson said. “It did weigh on me through the course of the year and I can’t wait to win and win often. And I think that would be something really nice to say back to all those people that suggested that I was washed up and done.”