Eighty-three wins, tied for sixth with Cale Yarborough on the Cup Series all-time list.

Five consecutive Cup Series championships from 2006-10 and seven overall, tying him for the most with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

Jimmie Johnson ranks as one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history.

At the end of last year, the 44-year old from El Cajon, California, announced this — his 19th season in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet — would be his final full one in the Cup Series.

His farewell tour was interrupted for 10 weeks by the coronavirus pandemic and has ramped up in earnest since NASCAR returned May 17.

Now, for likely the final time in his career, Johnson heads to Pocono Raceway this weekend for the Cup Series doubleheader: the Pocono Organics 325 on Saturday and the Pocono 350 on Sunday. He will look to end a 108-race drought since his last victory at Dover in June 2017.

JARED C. TILTON / GETTY IMAGES
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s Planes Chevrolet, stands on the grid after qualifying on the pole for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway on August 2, 2013 in Long Pond.

 

In 36 starts at the 2.5-mile triangular track in Long Pond, Johnson has three wins, three poles, 11 top-five finishes, 20 top 10s and 743 laps led.

Times-Tribune motor sports writer Scott Walsh spoke with Johnson about his final full season, his recollections of Pocono and thoughts on his career:

Q: Talk about how you feel your season is going so far. Two top-five finishes, six top 10s, 11th in the point standings after 13 races.

A: Performance-wise we’ve had very competitive cars. Very thankful we have the new Camaro that we do this year. It’s really put us on an equal playing ground with the other manufacturers. My team, a couple years ago now Chad (Knaus) and I decided to go separate ways, and the process of finding the right leader and the group of guys to find that ultimate connection that takes you from good to great in a team sport. A lot of people don’t realize NASCAR is a team sport, but it is. We’re in a good spot. I feel we’ve had a few opportunities get away the second half of last year and the start of this year. Mistakes I’ve made, just unfortunate how things have played out. But we’re there knocking on the door and I’ve always believed if you are running in the top five, you’re going to have a shot to win.

Q: What do you think about coming to Pocono for the final time, especially since it’s the doubleheader?

A: It’s so funny. Go back three or four months and looking at the doubleheader, you’d go, ‘Wow! That’s going to be different.’ Then enter this pandemic, we come back racing twice a week and you go, ‘The Pocono schedule looks familiar.’ I think we’ve learned a lot through the shutdown about efficiency levels in our industry and certainly as we’ve been able to go back racing and meet guidelines with health officials. We’re at the track for a shorter period of time. The quality of racing has not been affected, so would argue it’s been improved. The doubleheader really provides two opportunities to see the Cup cars on track and for the fans to see their favorite drivers. So I feel like we are recognizing some opportunities because of the pandemic, because of how we’re back racing, that we may have overlooked in the past. As the world continues to change and sports fans consume their products in different ways, I feel like we’re in a situation to better our sport and grow our sport that we may not have done otherwise.

Q: What was your first impression of Pocono when you showed up there in 2002?

A: Just how big it was. Even on the race track. Normally the track looks smaller, the lap time is half to a third, two-thirds of what you see there. You can quickly get into a rhythm to chip away at the fine details to be competitive. Pocono is so big and each corner has such a long straightaway that a small little detailed miss compounds, and you come around and look at your overall lap time and go, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so far off.’ Because the track is so big it takes a lot of laps to dial that in.

ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE
One of the tributes for Jimmie Johnson during his final full-time season included a custom surfboard and the renaming of a tunnel at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

 

Q: You seemed to take to Pocono pretty quickly.

A: I’ve always done well with quirky tracks. Three different corners with banking and radius, when I first started there you just had to manage those three corners. You really couldn’t dial in all three. I think things have changed a lot with the rules package now. Three or four years ago, when we took away the right height rules, it is much easier to get all three corners right. But when I first started, you just had to average things out and deal with some handling issues. With my upbringing in off-road trucks and buggies, I feel like that was an advantage for me and why I was able to win there so early in my career.

Q: Any of your three wins at Pocono stand out? You had the season sweep there in 2004, one of just seven drivers to accomplish the feat at the track.

A: The year we swept was super cool. We just had a lot of good things going on with the race cars. When I think back on my trips there, that year in general really stands out. I do remember a lot of tough times there. Back when we could test, I used to test there every year when I was first getting started; it must have been five or six years in a row. It was always tough to find speed. I can remember losing my brakes in turn 1 and crashing into the wall (in June 2017). It’s funny, I probably remember the tougher moments more than I really do the better moments. I was involved in an incident down Long Pond (straight in August 2010) that sent Elliott Sadler into a horrific crash. He hit the wall so hard it ripped the engine out of the car and it was just laying there, separate from the car. I was at the head of that whole thing starting and I thought I killed my friend. I was like, Oh my gosh, what just happened here?

Q: How has your farewell tour been going? What has been the neatest thing so far that a track has done for you?

A: We had four or five races with things being normal, and the outpouring of support and respect from the fans and everybody involved was really amazing. Being at the head of the field at a few of the tracks was really cool. At the Daytona 500, the president was there and I got to lead the field, so that was super cool. I would say the weekend that really stands out most to me was in Fontana. My hometown track, my family was involved waving the green flag, the track gave me gifts — I received a trail dirt bike, a helmet, a mural painted, the four-wide salute with me at the front. That weekend was so big and really filled my bucket. Not that I was looking for anything, but I was like, Wow, this is so thoughtful from the start of the weekend to the end. We ran well. That one sits in my heart right now. Of course, things are different now but tracks are still being very kind and I’ve been honored a few times. I wasn’t seeking that stuff going into my final year, but it’s warmed my heart to be able to receive some of those celebrations and honors.

Q: Any thoughts of not making this your final season, given the circumstances caused by the pandemic?

A: This is it. I’ve wanted to keep an open mind through things and my wife and I have chatted through it all. Mr. Hendrick has been very open; hey that’s your seat. If you want it it’s yours. When things first started to change, in the early days of the pandemic, I was kind of open to what the world was finding out and just not sure yet. As time went on, more conversations and seeing where my heart is on things, this will be my last full-time year. I’m not closing the door on racing in the future, even coming back and running a couple of Cup events. But the 38 weeks a year NASCAR requires is something I’m ready to have a change and do something different.

Q: How has the sport changed from when you started your career to now?

A: I would say the technology. Our cars at the track are very limited by design from NASCAR to try to keep expenses down. But the way we try to advance our cars and the involvement required from the driver to the team, driver to the engineering staff, driver to the simulation department, driver in the simulation rig, there’s just a lot of details now since we can’t go to the track and test. Understanding those deeper layers since we have all these tools. The driver has to be the computer system for the car. So you have to stay plugged in as often as you need to. That is far different from when I first started. When I first started, I’d pop into the shop once a week, maybe twice a month. Have an occasional test here or there. Show up on the weekends and do your job. It’s much different now, much more time intensive.

TERRY RENNA / ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE
Jimmie Johnson, center, his wife, Chandra, and his daughter, Genevieve, celebrate after he won his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, in Homestead, Fla., on Nov. 17, 2013.

 

Q: Of your seven championships, does any one stand out for you a little more than the others?

A: I could say my first one (2006) is the one I refer to the most. My first of everything was just so life-changing and so important to me. It was the affirmation that I was hoping for and wanted for choosing this career path and wanting to be successful. But when I look back over the years, they all have different meanings. To tie Cale (Yarborough) at three (straight) was very special. To be the only guy at five (in a row) and try to understand how in the world we did that just blows my mind. At the same time, trying to keep that streak alive was some of the most stressful and heated moments as a team I’ve experienced because of the pressure to keep it going. We didn’t think it at the time, but looking back it was intense. I would say the most fun I had racing for a championship was our sixth in 2013. We had fast cars, we were having fun, the team was just so connected. That was the most fun championship I’ve been a part of. Then to tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt (at seven). That was probably the most surprised I ever had. That was the only championship in the current format that we have. Being in the Final Four (at Homestead) was surprising. We weren’t the fastest car that night, but things came our way late. So to go from the emotional lows at the three-quarter mark of the race that it’s not our night, not our year to being the guy. That was one of the most intense swings of emotion I’ve ever experienced.

Q: Do you feel you have ever gotten your proper due with the fans for winning seven championships the way Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt have?

A: At a certain point, if anybody is winning too much, the fan base is kind of against that. They want to see somebody else. I know Richard dealt with it, I know Dale dealt with it. I feel like there have been times I’ve had more respect than I deserve and other times I’ve been underrespected or appreciated. It all balances out in my eyes from where I sit. One thing I do notice and am aware of is that I haven’t had the connection to the masses the way like a Dale Earnhardt has or a Richard Petty. I just don’t come across to the masses through television, through interviews, whatever that might be like some others have. You look at the magnetism Chase Elliott has. He’s going to win a lot of races and be a multi-Cup champion in my opinion. There’s just something there that draws the masses to him. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had that same appeal. I just have not had that. I’m fully aware of it. But we all have our journey, we all have our path. I think there was some more room for me to transcend the sport if you will. I hate missing that opportunity. But I’m me, I am who I am and very proud of the journey I’ve been on.

Q: Twenty years from now, when people look back at the sport and see the name Jimmie Johnson and all his accomplishments, how would you like to be remembered?

A: There’s always competitive stuff you want to be remembered for. A winner, a champion, fierce competitor, all that stuff, a racer. For me, at least where I am in my final full-time year, I have a lot of friends in that garage area. The working side of that garage area, there’s so much respect I have for them and they have for me. The relationship I have with my peers. That’s something I hope the fan base can see. I feel that shift now where that appreciation is there and people are seeing me as more than just a competitor. That’s feeling really good right now. I’m a father of two. I have a foundation that’s given back so much over the years. I really enjoy mentoring these young kids that are coming along. My team, in the garage, I’m always there for anybody that calls. There’s this other side of me that’s hard to see through the competitive spirit. But I really do enjoy those relationships in the garage area.

Contact the writer: swalsh@timesshamrock.com; 570 348-9100 ext. 5109