After two decades of excellence in NASCAR that saw Jimmie Johnson win every significant race, defy logic with five consecutive championships, and tie two greats with seven overall Cup Series titles, Phoenix Raceway marks #OneFinalTime around the track.
It was nearly a year ago when Johnson announced his plans to retire, and since then, many have tried to find the words to describe his career adequately. The funny thing is, what Johnson has meant to NASCAR, his impact, and what his legacy will be changes depending on who is asked.
Tony Stewart will tell you that Johnson’s legacy is everything. It is what he accomplished on the track with 83 wins and seven championships and the respect he gave. But it is also the person and personality of Johnson when the helmet is off.
“The husband that he is, the father that is, the athlete he is outside of the race car with everything else he does,” said Stewart. “It’s just Jimmie Johnson, the person. Dale Earnhardt had his legacy, and it was what he did on the racetrack; and Richard Petty had his legacy, and it was what he did on the racetrack and wearing a cowboy hat.
“Jimmie Johnson’s legacy is probably the one that’s not going to get near the credit of those two guys, but I feel like deserves more credit than both of them. No disrespect to either of them, but in the era that Jimmie did it, I feel like is a lot more competitive, and the way he did it was just different.”
Stewart, a three-time champion, said he’d egg the house of whoever might claim Johnson wasn’t good for the sport. A California kid who landed with a top organization in Hendrick Motorsports, Johnson changed the sport not from behind the wheel, said Stewart, but simply with his personality and kind demeanor.
“A sport that was a good old sport in the southeast – here’s Jimmie and he’s got guys riding bikes Saturday after final practice and running in the morning and this and that, and doing mini-marathons,” said Stewart. “His stats speak for themselves in the race car, but he really led all of that and transformed all that, and (off-track is) where he really made his mark.”
Stewart raced Johnson for wins and championships from 2001 until retiring at the end of 2016. The way he feels about Johnson is echoed by Jeff Burton, who raced against Johnson until getting out of the car in 2014. Both brought up Earnhardt and Petty, and both had a similar feeling in Johnson not being as celebrated as those who came before him.
“He’s a quiet guy that puts a hard hat on and goes to work, and when it’s over, he goes home,” said Burton. “I think he’s been grossly underrated. I think he’s been underappreciated. And some of it is simply because he’s not a self-promoter. I don’t think he cares what you and I think, (though) I think he cares what I think because I was a competitor; I think that means a great deal to him.
“But as a broadcaster, I think that he’s going to do it his way. That’s who he is. It’ll be part of his legacy. He will be more appreciated 10 years from now than he is right now, and I think that’s sad. I think Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt were celebrated more during their careers than Jimmie’s been, and I don’t know all the reasons for that. But I do believe it’s true. I believe that Jimmie is every bit the champion they are, but I don’t believe he’s received the recognition that they received.”
Then again, Johnson doesn’t strike Burton as the kind of guy who wants to be the center of attention. Burton believes Johnson would rather go race, lead all the laps, win, and then go home and hang out with his family.
“I think he raised the bar regarding the corner speed,” said Burton. “How fast are you going in the center of the corner? What is your center of the corner speed, and how you take that speed and make it work on the exit of the corner? He made everybody faster because of the speed he was able to generate.
“I think that probably, from a performance thing, was the biggest thing that he did. I always thought watching him and racing with him, he could get more out of his car with less rear grip than other people, and that’s a major advantage if you can do that. “
Burton learned long ago from Jack Roush that every driver has a code, and they live by that code, and it’s who they are. Johnson is one of the cleanest drivers on the track, and he showed races don’t have to be won the way Earnhardt or others did.
Racing against Johnson could drive a fellow competitor mad, though. All his races were won because he was just faster, and it led to drivers trying to figure out what Johnson’s car was doing and why theirs didn’t do the same thing. Plus, Johnson knew how to get as much out of his car as he possibly could.
“If you think about Dale Earnhardt, he was a bit of a brute, and he was a bit of a move you out of the way, muscle the race car, muscle you. Jimmie is just faster than you,” laughed Burton. “You think about Jimmie, he wasn’t afraid to spin out by himself, to make mistakes. He spun a lot of cars out in practice, stepped over the bounds quite a bit, but it shows you how close to that edge he operated, and he was comfortable at that edge. And he did that consistently, and he just was flat our faster than everyone else. That, to me, was always impressive.”