In December 2010, when Jimmie Johnson had been officially presented his fifth consecutive championship at the awards banquet, I remember asking if it had sunk in what he and Hendrick Motorsports had done.
The accomplishment was unfathomable. We weren’t talking about a clump of race wins or a five-year win streak. No, Johnson and Team 48 had taken home the sport’s biggest prize five consecutive years.
At the time I wrote for a previous publication, “Watching Johnson win back-to-back titles in 2006-07 was a bit refreshing as it hadn’t been done since the late 1990s. It was something new to write about. Then he goes and wins three straight, and it was great to be able to talk about his tie in history and flirtation with making new history.
“It was supposed to be flirtation, Jimmie. It was supposed to end at three. Then came No. 4, and it was just stupid. Stupid in a good way and amazing as well, like [Jeff] Gordon said. Five, though, sounds like a joke. It can’t be real.”
Wednesday, April 8, or 4/8, was declared Jimmie Johnson Day (using #JJDay) by the NASCAR social media channels. Johnson’s picture became the profile icon for their pages while the official NASCAR website rolled out content like his best paint schemes, career moments, and a recap of his 83 NASCAR Cup Series wins. Three past races with significant meaning to Johnson – the 2006 championship finale, the 2013 Daytona 500, and the 2007 Richmond race – were streamed on various platforms.
Very quickly, those around the sport started posting memories or messages about Johnson, which was the catalyst for some opining of my own.
The now seven-time champion is deservedly getting recognition for having such a mark on the sport. It’s rare Johnson receives the credit he is due for not only his accomplishments, like seven freaking championships despite format changes, adapting to different race cars and wide-ranging competition, but how Johnson has gone about it over the last 19 years.
If you’re looking for a well-thought-out and reasonable answer on a topic, go to Johnson. Not just because of his experience and status, but Johnson has never brushed off a question or request.
When asked who gives the best interviews or is someone I enjoy talking to, or when helping some of the sport’s younger drivers with media training, I point to Johnson. Look at how he listens to the interviewer’s question and doesn’t have a stock answer (that’s sometimes unrelated to the subject) ready to go. Pay attention to his body language and how he’s thinking it over and not rushing to respond.
Johnson has always been gracious with his time and professional no matter the situation. Eliminated from the playoffs, involved in an accident, or even if he just plain messed up, Johnson will provide a quote for the story. Don’t misunderstand — he is as passionate and competitive as the next guy, but he shows that without being over the top in the presentation.
Last year I came up with a story idea that I felt I’d have to sell the Johnson camp on making happen. The premise was sitting with Johnson and getting in his head, attempt to understand what the last few years have been like near the bottom of the NASCAR pecking order. Except, not only did Johnson and his representatives like the idea, he welcomed me into his motorhome at Charlotte, spoke openly and honestly, and even gave me a few more minutes than the designated block of time I had requested.
Class. That is the best way to describe the 44-year-old. Sure, the numbers are phenomenal and easy to repeat, and it’s fun to talk about how damn annoying it was always to see the No. 48 car upfront and winning races. But that’s not why Johnson gets celebrated today. Look at the comments and the hashtag. Take in the stories of how Johnson has treated people and lent his time.
After Johnson won his sixth title in 2013, some of what I wrote included, “While he’ll never be the most popular driver in the sport, Johnson has become one of the most respected. He’s handled his rise to the top with class and dignity, representing himself, his sponsors, and the sport in the best light. His work ethic is unrivaled. Dedication inspirational.”
All that still applies, and with nothing else going on in the racing world, taking the time to appreciate Johnson with #JJDay is appropriate. Hopefully, when racing returns and Johnson closes out his career in what is supposed to be his final full season, there will be many more days of helping the humble Johnson understand how special he is.