Where to begin?
Jimmie Johnson opens with that after facing the first question from RACER at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Where to begin with how the last 716 days, the period he’s been winless in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, has felt.
“It is a journey, and truly, the core of how I’m able to cope is (going) to the shop and you see this workforce and all these people trying so hard and working so hard, that oftentimes I’ll come to the shop frustrated after a weekend and then leave so inspired,” Johnson says. “Like, we’re on it, we’re going to get it. We’re working so hard to get there. So, that does help me from week to week.
“Mondays are typically tricky or tough. Sunday nights as well. Then Tuesday, when I work though our meetings, I usually come out way better and head into Friday [with a] clean slate mentally, and ready to get after it.”
It goes much deeper than that, though.
For the last few years, Johnson has faced question after question about what’s wrong with his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports group. He’s been endlessly quoted about the team’s hard work and never-say-die-attitude. Reporters and radio hosts have broken down his performance, the personnel changes and shop reorganization at the Hendrick campus.
But Johnson hasn’t just had a few bad seasons, he’s fallen from a steep perch built of 83 wins and seven championships. He became accustomed to consistent success at the Cup level, was always in the mix, and to some, appeared indestructible. Now, Johnson is doing something he’s never done before in battling from the bottom, and it’s led his mind to some dark moments.
“Totally, 100 percent,” he says. “And I don’t know a racer out there that hasn’t been through it, either. Nobody has the golden pathway for their whole career. Nobody does. We all go through that. This is not for the faint of heart; this is tough. When your existence is defined by your success and there’s only one winner, it’s tough.”
When did things start to go wrong? Some might say after he won his most recent Cup Series at Dover on June 4, 2017. That there were signs then of cracks in the foundation. But Johnson goes back even further, to 2015.
Even though he won five races that season and had 22 top-10 finishes, he calls it a “really, really tough” year. In 2016, he felt the company improved as he won four races going into the season finale, where he won again to capture his seventh championship.
“We were in the mix. Maybe not the championship favorite, but certainly had a shot, and got into Homestead, didn’t have the best night, fortune turned our way, capitalized,” says Johnson. “2016 was a year we kind of outkicked our coverage, and then ’17 reminded me a lot of ’15 again, we were back in that rut.”
Johnson won three times and finished 10th in points. By 2018, the rut was a sand trap in which the team was spinning its wheels and going nowhere. Johnson earned a career-low in top-10 finishes in both ‘17 and ’18 (11) and both seasons were the worst of his career in terms of overall average finish. Johnson and Knaus – a duo many said would never stop winning or working together – split at the end of the year.
No, Johnson admits, he never thought things would turn to this extent.
“I knew the fact we didn’t have a winless season was pretty special, and alright, maybe we’ll go a year. Then it was two, and here we are again,” he chuckles softly. “So, it’s like, damn this thing has really flipped.
“I didn’t think with the history of the 48, and what we accomplished and how we accomplished things, that I would be here with however many races (winless).”
‘Humbled’ is another word to describe how Johnson has been feeling. Johnson himself used it after qualifying at Bristol, to which a nearby Clint Bowyer laughed and said that was the first time he’s ever heard Johnson say such a thing.
“The part where we kicked ass for so long, I remember it happening and not even thinking it was true,” Johnson says of his success. “Like, my life has never been like this; this is not what I’m used to. So, I was always very aware and felt like I was uncomfortable at times being in that space and owning those moments. Sometimes I would read where people thought I was cocky, and I’m like, if you really knew the internal lack of confidence going on right now, that’s the last thing that I am.
“I am humbled largely because through my career, if I worked harder, applied myself more, I would get the results. And that’s been the humbling part of the last three years – the harder I work does not move the needle. That has never happened to me in my career, from motocross to off-road to ASA, Xfinity, to Cup. The more I applied myself, the better we were. I go to the Chad Knaus championship era – there was one year when we were trying to keep the five in a row going, we tested 22 times; 22 two-day test sessions. We were not good, we had to get better, we kept working, testing, working. Won the championship and kept the five in a row alive.
“You can’t do that stuff now, so you work in different ways, and at the same time the way I’ve been applying myself, it doesn’t move the needle and that’s the humbling part. That’s the part that flat-out sucks.”
No matter how bad things have gotten, Johnson hasn’t shied away from his obligations or all the questions. Even when those closest to him asked if he wanted to scale back, Johnson said no. Not only because he doesn’t feel it’s the right way to handle things, but his children, 8-year-old Genevieve and 5-year-old Lydia, are far too inquisitive with very direct questions that wouldn’t allow Johnson to be anything but a role model.
Over the years, Johnson has also looked for ways to tear himself down to get better while finding inspiration to carry through the season. For 2019, it came from a book written by David Goggins, a retired Navy Seal who had been invited to be a guest speaker at Hendrick. Titled, “Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds,” Johnson connected with how Goggins went to war with himself to succeed.
“He talks about this reflection mirror of sorts that he puts stickie notes on, and in my closest I have a mirror and I’ve got stickies all over it from different little quotes that he said that were like, yes, that’s what I have to do too,” says Johnson. “I’ve got to go to war with myself and change the way the I think.
“The game’s always changing, you can’t be stuck on a certain way to get things done. Coming into this year, reading that book, new crew chief, I have to change the way I think. I’m in a whole new environment inside of that transporter with those guys. Plus, what else is out there that I need to change? The way you drive a car, the way I analyze things. I’ve always looked for a certain setup or a certain line and I’m like, I just need to change all of that.”
Johnson has always laughed at the notion he was invincible; capable of marching through year after year of success while metaphorical bullets bounce harmlessly off him. Going through tough times himself now, Johnson feels much more aware of what is real for a driver.
“Mentally, the thing that’s different now,” he says. “For the longest time I moved up through the ranks by being patient. I really wasn’t inside, but the way things happened for me and the way I had to kind of network my way into my opportunities, there was a very slow progression that requited a lot of patience to get in those situations. Racing in the car, being patient, things would come to me – it was a long race, lots of pit stops and chances to work on it. Be patient. Be patient.
“Now we have stage racing, you can’t be patient. I had 10, 15, 20 years of racing ahead of myself, I could be patient. All of those things don’t exist today – including my contract’s up in 2020; I don’t know what I’m doing in 2021 yet. I certainly know I don’t have 10 years left of racing, so I’m now transitioning to a point and time where I’m less patient. The guy walking in the gate today is way less patient than I was five years ago.”