Racer to Racer: Tony Stewart on Jimmie Johnson

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Racer to Racer: Tony Stewart on Jimmie Johnson

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Racer to Racer: Tony Stewart on Jimmie Johnson


Tony Stewart will offer the same sentiment whenever he’s asked about Jimmie Johnson. It’s one that he’s even told his fellow NASCAR Cup Series competitor and champion when they talk.

“I always remind him at the end of the conversation that when I grow up, I want to be him,” Stewart says.

Stewart competed against Johnson from late 2001, when Johnson made his first few starts in the Cup Series, through 2016. Stewart retired at the end of that season, and Johnson followed a few years later.

Between the two of them are 132 race wins and 10 championships. And after battling each other in hundreds of races, Stewart and Johnson hold each other in high regard.

“He’s just somebody that I really think a lot of, and it’s not only for what he’s done inside the race but outside the race car as well,” says Stewart. “He’s just a genuinely good person and somebody that I have a lot of admiration and respect for — and somebody that I feel is a true friend.”

Johnson nosed ahead of Stewart in 2006, but “Smoke” would also be the one to break the 48’s title streak five years later. Motorsport Images

During his Hall of Fame career, Stewart won three championships. Stewart won his second championship in 2005 and was the last driver for some time to hoist the sport’s biggest trophy as the following year, 2006, began Johnson’s and the No. 48 team’s reign of dominance. Ironically, it was Stewart, in 2011, who ended the streak.

Since Johnson arrived on the scene, many have tried to explain why he and his team were so good. The most straightforward answer is usually the correct one and Stewart agrees that it was all the ingredients: the team, the equipment, the crew chief, and the driver.

“But it wasn’t always easy for him and that team,” Stewart says. “The public thinks they were a well-oiled machine and flawless — there were chinks in the armor but especially Jimmie knew how to work through the rough edges of it to polish it and make it good, and make it to where he could get the most out of that race team every week.”

Johnson did have the advantage of driving for a championship organization and having Jeff Gordon as a mentor, but he also had the talent to make use of it. On the racetrack, drivers have a keen eye for what their fellow competitor is capable of and is doing with their car, whereas a viewer may not.

“He was just a machine,” Stewart says of Johnson’s talent. “You couldn’t rattle the guy. It didn’t matter what you did; he focused on what he was doing and didn’t care what you were doing around or behind him.

“If Dale (Earnhardt) Sr. was around during his era of championships, he would not have been able to rattle Jimmie Johnson. He just wouldn’t. Jimmie is just that solid. He had that much confidence, he had that much ability, and it wasn’t that he did anything special that others didn’t do, he just did it consistently over and over. Every week he could do it. And they had a package that could work, and they all showcased each others’ talents in that organization and race team.

“If you gave him the tools and a car that could run up front, you could bet your ass he was going to run up front. There was no doubt about it. I never saw him have an off day on the racetrack. He was just that focused and that much of a machine when it came to getting inside the race car and doing his job week in and week out.”

To say Johnson never had a bad day on the racetrack is high praise.

“It’s hard to do,” Stewart says.

After becoming a full-time driver in 2002, Johnson had a stretch of 16 consecutive years with two or more wins. During his 2007 championship run, Johnson scored 10 wins, including four straight races in the playoffs.

In his first 10 seasons, Johnson finished no worse than sixth in the championship standings. It wasn’t until 2019, his 18th season in the series, that Johnson missed the postseason for the first time.

Johnson’s prolonged success was as exciting for his fans to watch as it was frustrating for rivals — and their fans. But not for Stewart, who never found it aggravating trying to beat Johnson.

“They were the benchmark because they were so consistent,” he says of the 48 team. “It didn’t matter what car, format, they figured out the best way to win and that’s just how solid they were. The organization, the team, and their approach. Everything was that solid during his reign.”

Stewart and Johnson never went head-to-head for a championship, but they had plenty of on-track battles. The post-race paint swapping after the 2005 Daytona 500 led to both of them being called to the NASCAR hauler. Stewart got the best of Johnson by driving around him on the outside on a restart with three laps to go to win the 2011 fall Martinsville race.

The intensity of his duels with Johnson was both memorable and educational for Stewart — particularly at Martinsville, like here in 2011… Motorsport Images

On the other hand, Johnson credits Stewart with teaching him how to run well at Martinsville. It was early in Johnson’s career when Stewart lapped him at the Virginia short track, and Johnson could run behind Stewart and see why he was successful.

Through the years, the two developed a friendship that went beyond racing. Johnson paid tribute to Stewart in his final season with kind words and funny stories, with Stewart returning the favor when Johnson hung up his helmet a few years later.

And, speaking of helmets, the two will forever be connected by one in particular. In 2016, on the championship stage in Miami, Johnson handed Stewart the helmet he had just raced and won his seventh championship wearing.

“Oh God, yeah, absolutely,” Stewart says when asked if he still has the helmet. “I still tell Jimmie, I view that helmet that it’s on loan from him and I’ve always told him, ‘That helmet will never go anywhere.’ If there’s a day when he decides he wants it back, I’ll hand deliver it to him personally.

“That’s a significant helmet in the history of this sport and that’s something I cherish. The value of it isn’t because of what it is. It’s because of who it came from and the fact that it was a personal gift from him.”

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