Stewart said beating Johnson brought a great sense of accomplishment. But seeing him in the rearview mirror also brought the same feeling it did for those who raced against Earnhardt back in the day.
“It was like racing Dale Sr. but the clean version of Dale Sr.,” said Stewart. “At the end of the race, if you were leading and you saw Jimmie back there, that’s not the guy you wanted to see because he was so good, and for so many years, he was so good. If you saw him at the end of a race, he was going to be tough to beat. So, if you won a race and he ran second, you had to earn it; there were no gimme’s with him.
“But it was the same feeling when you saw Dale Sr. in the mirror. It was like, ‘Oh man, anybody but this guy!’ But instead of getting moved out of the way, if there was a way Jimmie could get by, he would get by. He did it clean – and Dale did too to the majority of the time – but that feeling was the same when you looked in the mirror. Jimmie was one of those guys; he didn’t make mistakes. He was always on. He raced everybody clean and with respect.”
Nearly all the drivers racing against Johnson this year have been asked about him, and no one has had a bad word to say. Even Ryan Blaney, who was “chewed out” by Johnson at Watkins Glen last year, looks back on it as a fond memory and said it was great. Blaney said it’s been a pleasure racing against Johnson, and it’s hard not to be a fan given how humble Johnson is.
Kyle Busch was once a teammate of Johnson’s and said they have the utmost respect for each other. The two have raced each other for wins and championships cleanly.
“He’s one of the best I’ve ever been around,” said Busch. “I think he’s left a phenomenal footprint on this sport and what he’s been able to do, him and Chad [Knaus] both, and of course the relationship that he and Lowe’s had for many years. That car is just going to be iconic.”
Kevin Harvick called Johnson a role model because good and bad have been handled correctly by Johnson. Chase Elliott commended Johnson’s work ethic and competitive nature. But Johnson said Elliott of his teammate, never flaunted how good he was in the faces of others.
Said Alex Bowman, “We should all definitely be a little more like Jimmie sometimes.”
Racing goes in cycles, and no one stays on top forever. When Jeff Gordon came onto the scene in 1993, dominance shifted away from Earnhardt with every win and championship Gordon started to win.
Gordon is credited with helping NASCAR reach a mainstream audience. Polished and well-spoken, Gordon appeared on shows like Saturday Night Live and early morning news programs. On the track, Gordon believes he changed the sport by showing that every race mattered because he wanted to be good at every track, there were no throwaway races, such as when teams once paid little attention to road courses.
Gordon also wanted to be good on the marketing side of things and reach a new fan. He said that was because he wasn’t a traditional NASCAR driver with traditional roots. Johnson then saw what Gordon was doing when he arrived in 2002 and took it to the next level both on and off the track.
“I see it now more than ever with his social media and how he’s handling it, the effort he’s putting into it, the quality of videos, the class in which he’s carried himself and style,” Gordon said of Johnson off the track.
When Johnson came into NASCAR, the dominance moved from Gordon to Johnson. Same team, same equipment, same opportunities, and suddenly, Gordon was regularly “getting my butt kicked.” It impressed Gordon and has led him to say that Johnson is the best he ever raced against.
“When you’ve dominated, and you’re kind of the lead driver at an organization like Hendrick Motorsports, you’ve achieved success and here comes a driver, it was one of those things that I always had confidence in myself, my team, equipment, we always had the ability in the 24 team and myself to rise above and still have an edge, and then that went to the 48 team and Jimmie Johnson,” said Gordon. “Then you have to look deep within yourself and say, all right, what do they have that we don’t have? What are they doing that we’re not doing? What am I personally doing, or can I do more of that gets that advantage back? He was just very focused. He put tons of energy into his team and the chemistry as well as the physical fitness side of things.”
When Gordon knew his career was ending, he took all the things he’d watched Johnson do for years and applied them tenfold. Gordon had a conversation with his family about pouring everything he had into his final two years and having to spend more time with his team, study more, and get in better shape.
“On the track, physical fitness, he set the standard for everybody,” said Gordon. “Nobody is ever going to win five in a row again, I don’t believe, so he took the whole Chase format and those final 10 races and said, OK, here’s the format and points system, and he and Chad Knaus said, we’re going to go, and those 10 tracks are going to be our best tracks. I legitimately think they put an emphasis on that. I think it’s things like that that come to mind, and I’m sure there are others of how Jimmie and the 48 team took things to the next level.”
There isn’t a whole lot left to say about Johnson. Words have been exhausted over the last year, and Johnson has deserved every compliment and accolade he’s received. All that is left for him is to strap in one last time – and Gordon, for one, would love to see Johnson have one last success story.
“Hopefully, all the misfortunes and the miscues and things that have been going on in recent weeks, maybe those will all go away, and everything will come together, and we’ll see the Jimmie Johnson that we’ve all been used to seeing in his final race,” said Gordon. “He’s just one of those people that comes along and elevates the sport, changes the sport – that only comes along every so often.
“It’s hard to believe this is going to be his final full-time season. I look forward to him going into the Hall of Fame soon.”