The feeling of retirement started to become real for Jimmie Johnson in October.
With his Hendrick Motorsports contract set to expire after 2020, Johnson had already been thinking plenty about his future through the spring and summer months. In his mind, Johnson felt he needed to make a decision by the end of this year.
When the feeling of stepping away started to hit, “it felt good to think about” Johnson admitted Thursday afternoon at a press conference with Rick Hendrick by side.
“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 (wife Chandra),” Johnson said. “It was just that strong in my stomach. It was like, ‘Wow, this is what I want to do.’”
Three weeks ago, Johnson sat down with Hendrick. But the Hall of Fame team owner didn’t have Johnson on the clock of when he wanted to know about next year, saying Johnson earned the right to take the time he wanted. The company would figure out its next steps after he had decided.
Of course, Hendrick felt “shock” when the seven-time champion informed him of his plans.
“Every time one of these drivers call me and want to come to my house, I know that’s not a good situation,” Hendrick said. “I knew the day would come, but I should be the one retiring. Not you.”
In the two or three times Johnson mentioned that the ’20 season would be his last, he said Hendrick never reacted. “And then the fourth time he said, ‘I guess you’re serious about this aren’t you?’”
“Everybody knows Jimmie, he processes everything, and then when he’s made up his mind, he’s not wishy-washy at all,” Hendrick said. “He’s done so much for us and for the sport. If you just said, I’m going to list what the perfect driver from the talent to the ability to working with sponsors, athlete, he’s just raised the bar at our company from fitness to charity; it’s unbelievable how perfect he is. So whatever he wanted, I wanted for him.”
Johnson was introduced at the press conference by his two daughters, 9-year-old Genevieve and 6-year-old Lydia. Wednesday morning, before the retirement video hit his social media channels Johnson shared it with his daughters over breakfast.
Lydia was unfazed and just wanted dad to pass the butter for her pancakes. Genevieve said Johnson is still processing and wants him to be happy.
“So excited to be where I am today and to be in this press conference today and tell everyone what my plans are,” Johnson said. “I’m very excited and just ready to get 2020 started. The process has been interesting. Telling friends, telling my team yesterday. To sit the team down, people who have worked on the 48 from the beginning, that was probably one of the harder moments I think that I had. … It’s been an interesting process and a day you never really can plan for, but it’s here, and I’m just thankful to be with family, friends, this man right here (Hendrick) and all that he’s done for my life.”
In attendance were Jeff Gordon, Chad Knaus, crew chief Cliff Daniels, plus friend and former NFL player Jason Sehorn. NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton was also in the crowd, as was executive vice president and chief marketing officer Jill Gregory, and Speedway Motorsports Incorporated CEO Marcus Smith.
“I feel very, very good about my decision, and it’s just time,” Johnson said.
Next season will be Johnson’s 19th full year in the series. Struggles he and the No. 48 team have experienced in recent years had “very little” implication on his decision as Johnson reiterated he had been waiting for a feeling to appear.
Johnson also said a few times that he is stepping away from what it takes to compete 38 weekends a year in NASCAR, but he is not done driving race cars. He is “wide open” about the future and looks forward to what will develop in the future. The only thing not on the list is IndyCar and fast ovals.
To begin though, Johnson will take a deep breath and put his family first for once instead of racing. Maybe there will be bucket list items like traveling they will cross off the list, although no one knows what ’21 will look like.
Hendrick signed Johnson in 2001, and he ran his first three races with the team late in the year. In ’02, Johnson came up short to Ryan Newman in the Rookie of the Year battle. The championships began rolling in ’06. Johnson and former crew chief Chad Knaus became the first to win five straight titles in 2010 and tied the historic mark of seven championships in 2016.
“Jimmie was a good friend of my son Ricky, and Ricky told me he was going to be a champion,” Hendrick said.
Johnson was not just a driver but family according to Hendrick. An unbelievable person and friend, Hendrick noted on top of it all Johnson was one of the greatest ever to get behind the wheel. Additionally, he believes that people are going to remember the man, Jimmie Johnson.
“I just don’t know how to thank you, buddy, for being the champion and the leader and friend, everything you meant to this company,” Hendrick said. “And giving us all the championships and done some unbelievable things. We’ll always be grateful, and we’ll always be appreciative, and I’ve got your number.”
In his final remarks, Johnson said he was trying not to cry. At the end of the 36-race season next year, Johnson will have made 687 career starts.
“I’m just so thankful to literally have chased a dream since I was a kid to race,” Johnson said. “Just thankful. Very, very thankful. Thankful for the relationships that I built in the sport. Just thank you.”