A press conference changed the direction of Jimmie Johnson’s life.
In early 2018, Johnson was in Daytona making the rounds for NASCAR’s annual preseason media event. NASCAR’s January press conferences tend to be pretty straightforward deals — the media asks a few questions about how excited the driver is about the upcoming season; the driver replies that yes, they’re very excited about the upcoming season. Everyone knows the steps to the dance.
But at this particular scrum, Johnson happened to cross paths with Formula 1 legend Fernando Alonso, who was in town doing press for the upcoming Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona race. Alonso and Johnson shared a connection that no one who keeps their cars below 200 mph can understand, and they bonded instantly.
“We should swap cars,” Alonso said at one point.
“We should absolutely swap cars,” Johnson immediately replied.
Since McLaren, Alonso’s team at the time, was based in England, and Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports was based in North Carolina, this wasn’t as simple as meeting at a local Wal-Mart parking lot. The two drivers’ teams settled on Bahrain as a test track, which meant shipping a Lowe’s 48 Chevrolet to the Persian Gulf by boat.
Naturally, the entire experience became social media content — #JJvsAlo — and the video of the swap is enlightening. Alonso appeared to enjoy sliding around in the 48 the way you wheel an amusement-park bumper car, barreling around without regard for subtlety or grace. If an open-wheel car is a precisely tuned, resonant violin, a stock car is an electric guitar thick with distortion. Same basic principle, entirely different results.
For Johnson, though, the experience was transcendent, Christmas morning and a surprise birthday party and a first kiss all wrapped up in one. There are a few moments in your life when your future becomes clear, and for Johnson, that afternoon on the track in Bahrain was one.
“It was so cool,” Johnson recalled on Friday. “I was thinking, how can I do more of this? I need more of this.”
Johnson had loved open-wheel racing since he was a kid, long before he got behind the wheel of a stock car and became the most dominant NASCAR driver of the 21st century. Even after two decades at the pinnacle of his sport, though, the time in the cockpit of Alonso’s sleek, impossibly fast F1 car unburied something in Johnson.
“The performance of the car, the power-to-weight ratio, the cornering, the braking, all of that was just so intense in a Formula car,” Johnson said. “I knew right then I had to figure out how to get back in an open-wheel car.”
Two seasons and one retirement tour later, Johnson is doing exactly that. It’s a remarkable career twist, all but unprecedented in motorsports, and it’s revealing a side of Johnson he rarely showed during his trophy-filled NASCAR career.
Over 20 seasons in NASCAR, Johnson won seven championships, tied for the most of any driver ever, and 83 races, tied for sixth all-time. But on Sunday, he’ll go back to being a rookie when he lines up on the grid of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. He’s now an IndyCar driver and a member of Chip Ganassi Racing, the first new team he’s joined in two decades.
“It’s a whole new world,” Johnson said. “This excitement, these nerves, it’s pretty incredible. This is a childhood dream, to be in an Indy car.”
In conversation, Johnson sounds relaxed, grounded, present. He seems at ease, even when he’s multitasking, running through his recent history while on a scooter to grab his credentials from his hauler. He’s 45, but he’s still a newcomer in the world of IndyCar. To this point, his experience has been confined to practice laps and virtual racing. He hasn’t yet driven in traffic, or made a pass, or seen how a track evolves over the course of a race. It’s a new sensation to him, and he’s enjoying every minute of it.
“The potential of these cars is like triple that of a NASCAR car,” Johnson said. “The braking, the lateral grip … I’ll be going through a turn thinking I’m at the limit of the car, but I’m nowhere near it. I’m at the limit of my senses, but that’s not the limit of the car.”
Seven championships and seven dozen wins buy you freedom, and Johnson freely admits that his love for NASCAR as a sport remains as strong as ever. NASCAR as a business? Not so much.
“If it were just racing,” he says, “I’d still be in there. But racing 38 times a year takes its toll. It wasn’t about the racing, it was all the other elements of the job, the time that it takes.”
The NASCAR season is an absolute grind — 38 race weekends, almost all on the road, plus testing and practice. Each race weekend is punctuated, at least in non-COVID times, with endless meet-and-greets, press conferences (them again!), and assorted other team and sponsor obligations.
“The last couple years,” Johnson said, “I didn’t feel the balance was right.”
Johnson chafed at the demands of race weekend, and it wasn’t unusual to see him cycling or running outside the tracks when his time behind the wheel was done. On-track frustrations grew; he won his last championship in 2016, won his last race in 2017. His average finish continued to decline. He missed the playoffs his final two years. Sometime in the 2019 season, he started thinking about what might lie beyond.
The decision to retire “had to come from my heart,” Johnson said. “Once I said it out loud, I felt really good about it.”
He broached the subject with his wife Chandra, who recommended they sleep on it. Every time she checked back in with him over the next few days, though, he remained steadfast in his belief that it was time to go.
The next step: tell Rick Hendrick, the man who had helped Johnson rise from California racer to motorsports legend. Johnson visited Hendrick in his home, and gave him the news: 2020 would be Johnson’s final year racing in the Cup series.
Hendrick didn’t respond. Johnson kept talking, repeating his determination to walk away. Still, Hendrick didn’t say anything. Finally, Johnson asked if Hendrick had heard him.
“I did,” Hendrick replied, “but I don’t want to hear it.”
Hendrick gave Johnson a few opportunities to backtrack, but Johnson stayed firm, and made the announcement in November 2019: one more year, then out.
Once Johnson determined an end date, he had a choice: what to do next? Would he transition into announcing, like fellow Hendrick teammates Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.? Would he take over ownership of a team or track, like Tony Stewart? Would he disappear into the hinterlands like Carl Edwards? Many options were on the table, but none quite intrigued Johnson like the idea of getting behind an open-wheel car.
There’s a certain symmetry at work here. Johnson was a fan of IndyCar long before he slid into a stock car. Some of his earliest racing memories are of IndyCar racing at Long Beach, an experience that imprinted itself on his brain.
“Before I ever saw one, I could hear it, hear echoes of the cars as I was walking to the crossover bridge,” he said. “My adrenaline was pumping just hearing the Indy cars. Once you see one, you see how sexy the cars are … that’s it.”
The opportunity to live a childhood dream was before him, but there was still the matter of convincing his family. “My wife knows the journey I’ve been on, and she also knows how much fun I had in the open-wheel car,” Johnson said. “Of course, her concern was 1., that I chase my dream, and 2., that I’d be safe. As IndyCar adapted the aero screen (to protect the exposed driver), and the series got a year under its belt with that, all of this became much more of a possibility.”
Over the years, there’s been some movement back and forth between NASCAR and IndyCar. Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch, among others, both competed in the Indy 500. Dario Franchitti and Juan Pablo Montoya, among others, jumped from open-wheel to stock cars. So what Johnson was planning wasn’t unprecedented, but it wasn’t as routine as an NFL player jumping from the AFC to the NFC, either.
A planned April test with Arrow McLaren SP Motorsports had to be scrubbed because of COVID, but in July, Johnson and Ganassi tested at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The results were so positive that Chip Ganassi offered Johnson a two-year deal, contingent on finding sponsorship.
Johnson had only driven for two sponsors his entire career — Lowe’s from 2001 to 2018, and Ally in 2018 and 2019. He intended to find one single sponsor rather than cobbling together a patchwork collection. He did just that, meeting with more than 40 potential sponsors before landing a deal with online car retailer Carvana. The new arrangement comes complete with ads that are a wee bit edgier than Lowe’s. (The home improvement company never had Johnson eat a bunch of hard-boiled eggs, for instance.)
With sponsor money on the way, Johnson was ready to race. In October, as the final days of his NASCAR career wound down, the childhood dream became a reality: Jimmie Johnson’s 48 would debut in IndyCar for the 2021 season.
There was one restriction: no ovals. Chandra was nervous about the prospect of Johnson entering turns at places like Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway at 230 miles an hour, and she wasn’t alone. Johnson himself had spoken out against the idea of ovals in IndyCar after the 2011 death of Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas. So for the four oval races on the circuit, Johnson recruited a fellow veteran, Tony Kanaan, to do a two-year mini-retirement tour of his own.
“This is just a perfect fit. It is so obvious, as Jimmie said, for me to race the ovals that he does not want to race,” Kanaan said in November. “Because of the pandemic, I expressed a desire to come back and do ovals. I never said I wanted to do a full season because I was realistic. So this is just too good to refuse.”
But with Johnson, “never” doesn’t quite mean never. “There’s a slight, slight opening,” Johnson allowed about his chances to race on ovals. “After being around the cars, spending this year racing and driving, the next realistic step is to test one on an oval.”
He won’t race in this year’s Indy 500, but if he meets marks set by himself, his family and his team, he might, just might, be in the grid for the 2022 Indy. Between now and then, though, there’s a whole lot of road course and street course racing — 13 races in total, from this weekend in Alabama right on through Long Beach in September … a full two months before the NASCAR season ends.
Johnson hasn’t shut the door on a NASCAR return, driving one-off races like Daytona or Darlington. But to date, he hasn’t been asked — he’d have to race somewhere other than Hendrick, already at its four-car maximum — and at the moment, he’s focused on IndyCar. “I’d be a little bit nervous about going back,” he said. “Right now, I’m trying to unwind all these NASCAR habits.”
Johnson gives off the air of a man quite satisfied with the state and direction of his life. So why begin a new chapter like this, a new challenge from a standing start?
“That’s just me,” he said. “I love accountability. I love to work for something. In the offseason, I’m good (relaxing) for a week or two, and then I need some purpose. It’s the way I grew up — a blue-collar work ethic. My family wired me that way, to do work and find happiness in that.”
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at email@example.com.
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