This is the seventh and final in a series of stories reflecting on Jimmie Johnson’s NASCAR success from those who on the ground during his dominant Hendrick Motorsports era. Johnson has returned to the industry as a stakeholder in Legacy Motor Club and will run select races in 2023.
The early part of Jimmie Johnson’s NASCAR career did not offer many hints of what was to come. Johnson was an unproven talent when Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon signed him, and for the longest time, the only thing Johnson was known for was crashing his Xfinity Series car at Watkins Glen and, after climbing out of the cockpit, standing on the roof with his arms raised.
“Then he comes in with Rick and Chad Knaus and all of a sudden, this 48 car gets in the garage, and it doesn’t take long for it to be a player amongst other very talented organizations and drivers,” NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton tells RACER. “Then you’re thinking, hmm.”
Helton is continually amazed by those who can recognize talent in someone when it hasn’t fully revealed itself. Gordon and others saw talent in Johnson as he climbed the ranks, putting him in the No. 48 Chevrolet and pairing with him with Knaus, who was just as unproven even though Knaus had a year of Cup Series experience under his belt as a crew chief.
“Then the whole industry gets to see Jimmie, and the chemistry between him and Chad was obvious early on,” says Helton. “Then he starts winning – winning championships, winning multiple championships, winning three straight championships, and after he got his sixth one, I don’t know if anyone really truly thought he could get the seventh one, but he did. I think that’s about all it took, because there were so many individual races that he was kind of down and out early on, but him as a driver, the pit crew, Chad Knaus, the car chief, they figured out how to stay in the game, and more often than not, came out winning.
“That’s the heart and soul of what we do. We run long-distance races almost every weekend. Five or four hundred miles or 500 laps. In the world of motorsports, ours is a lot of mileage in one event, and Jimmie was a strategic driver who fit well in a strategic organization. I don’t know how long it’s going to take for the NASCAR family, fan base, and industry to totally appreciate his ability, even after all the wins and championships. I just don’t think we completely recognize him as the talent he is; it may take a while.”
Johnson spent his career under the watchful eye of Helton, who served as NASCAR president from 2000 through 2014. However, Helton hasn’t gone far and is still visible in the garage in his current role.
Helton viewed Johnson as an under-the-radar guy even while winning 83 races and seven championships. Equipment aside, Johnson could put on a show on the racetrack, and Helton was just as amazed as everyone else.
“He did it in an era where there were a lot of other talents, so it wasn’t like it was a window of opportunity just for him,” says Helton. “He went out (and succeeded) just like Jeff Gordon did in his era and Dale [Earnhardt] Sr. did in his era or Tony Stewart. I think part of his talent and ability was reading what else was going on on the racetrack and what part of the race they were in.
“It was kind of David Pearson-like and Bill Elliott-like. Where did he come from at the end of the race? Where has he been all day? That’s the strategic-ness of a guy like Jimmie that when he had to get on the wheel and accomplish what he needed to accomplish… he had that second and third wind in him that he could pull from.”
It took Johnson’s team 10 races before they pulled into victory lane for the first time in 2002 and were in championship contention late in the season. Johnson didn’t win rookie of the year honors – that went to Ryan Newman – but the foundation was quickly built for sustained success.
In addition to seven championships, Johnson had 16 consecutive seasons of multiple wins. The last three years of his career finally saw a downturn when he went winless and missed the playoffs for the first time in 2019 – his 18th full season.
Through his first 10 seasons, Johnson finished no worse than sixth in points; a stretch that includes five straight championships. No matter the cars, rules, playoff format or schedule, Johnson and his team couldn’t be slowed down.
Helton chuckles when reminded that some accused NASCAR of making changes to try and stop Johnson’s reign of terror.
“It speaks to the Hendrick organization and Chad Knaus’s ability to do the things he does, but it certainly speaks loudly to Jimmie Johnson’s talent because we never made the changes to affect anybody changes,” Helton says. “(It was) to improve the sport or to fix things that didn’t need to be a part of the sport. But the most talented athletes can adapt to whatever is thrown at them. And you think about the changes NASCAR might make from one year to the next or maybe over two years, think about all the changes a driver has to react to and reflect on during the race itself. You think of all the different moments during those races a driver has to adapt, read it, figure out their place at that moment and adjust correctly.
“Jimmie made mistakes along the line, but so did every other seven-time champion we’ve had, and every other good driver is going to make mistakes. You’re going to have wrecks, tear up stuff, bump into people. You’re going to do things you’d like to go back and do-over. But more often than not, Jimmie was capable of reading the moment and adapting to them, and that applied to each race he ran, and each time we might make changes across the board in the garage.”
Helton said watching the Johnson dynasty unfold is good sports.
“Because a franchise or dynasty or iconic athlete isn’t one that, OK, maybe he’s going to have a good day, maybe he’s not,” Helton says. “Those teams or those individuals, every day, the expectation is that they are going to be a remarkable player or in our case, driver. What Jimmie did very quickly – and I say very quickly for the first four or five years of his career – was be identified race morning as a contender for that day consistently. Then he backed it up with wins and championships.”
Fans would get on the bandwagon along the way, hoping to see Johnson continue winning. Others became tired of seeing his success.
“But that’s the nature of sports, and that’s the nature of our sport,” says Helton.
Helton watched Johnson grow up in NASCAR. Johnson entered the Cup Series as a 26-year-old who matured into a champion, married and had children. A “remarkable individual” away from the racetrack, according to Helton, Johnson then puts on a helmet and becomes an incredible race car driver.
“That entire package is special and unique,” Helton says.
Aside from his success, Johnson gets praised for being good for NASCAR in terms of how he represented himself and the sport. It’s hard to find someone who will say Johnson isn’t a good person. Helton not only agreed, but applauded Johnson for trying other forms of motorsports when he left NASCAR.
But Helton and NASCAR are thrilled to have Johnson back in the stock car family as an owner at Legacy Motor Club and part-time driver.
“It means a lot; it’s a big statement,” says Helton of Johnson’s return. “If you watch the last few years and you see Brad Keselowski join Roush Fenway and become part of the ownership package, you see what Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. has done with JR Motorsports, Kyle Busch with his race team that’s separate from his driving career, and Kevin and Delana [Harvick] when they had their truck teams while he was driving.
“Those involvements in the sport beyond being a race car driver sends a big message to the whole NASCAR industry that this is my sport, I’m a part of it, and I want to contribute back to it because it’s been good to me. You want to stay engaged in it.
“A lot of drivers, and there is nothing wrong with this, they’ll go away, and you never hear from them unless we celebrate them at the Hall of Fame or something like that. But the guys like Tony Stewart and now Jimmie Johnson, Dale Jr., Brad Keselowski, these drivers who help other drivers get the opportunities that they had, is a big positive statement for us.”