NBC Sports Washington is counting down big NASCAR moments leading up to the Daytona 500. Be sure to check out our other coverage below.
But with one day remaining until the Great American Race, this day is reserved for one specific driver who happens to be hanging up his full-time driving helmet at the end of the season.
The greatest NASCAR driver of all-time: Jimmie Johnson.
When Jeff Gordon told Rick Hendrick to hire Jimmie Johnson, it’s safe to say he didn’t expect the then mid-20s California kid to surpass his success in the Cup Series. But right off the bat, he showed signs he had it.
It took Johnson 10 races to reach Victory Lane, albeit at his home track of Auto Club Speedway. And then three races later, his first of a NASCAR record 11 wins at Dover International Speedway. The baby-faced California kid was no longer a dirt motorbike racer on two-wheels. He was a full-fledged stock car driver.
He finished fifth in the championship standings his rookie year, but didn’t even win the Rookie of the Year award thanks to Ryan Newman’s stellar campaign. Three more wins in 2003 and a second-place finish in the standings, a whopping eight checkered flags in 2004 and another runner-up finish. He had arrived. He was “big time.” The championships were coming.
After four more wins and another fifth-place finish in 2005, the dominance began. He and crew chief Chad Knaus. 2006: a championship...and 2007, 2008...2009 and 2010. Fives titles in a row, eclipsing Cale Yarborough’s then-record of three consecutive titles.
NASCAR doesn’t get as much attention as the NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB. But any sports fan can appreciate dominance when they see it. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick didn’t win five straight. Neither did Shaq and Kobe. It’s the most impressive feat by a team in the modern era of sports.
After two years of failing to win it all, he returned to championship form, winning his sixth in 2013. NASCAR then again changed the championship format to go to a winner-take-all, championship four style format. And after another two-year break, Johnson did it again.
His record-tying seventh title came in 2016, using his patented passing skills to get by Kyle Larson on a late-race restart to claim his first career win at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a track that had crowned him champion six times, but had never given him the “race winner” title.
His quest to defend the title in 2017 was a tough one. Although he won three times, he finished 10th in the standings, only the third time in his career he’d finished 10th or worse
In recent years, his performance has been lackluster to put it lightly. No wins for the first time ever in 2018, and a missed playoff appearance for the first time ever in 2019. Johnson has gone almost two calendar years without winning a points-paying race.
Sure, age has something to do with it. But his team (Hendrick Motorsports) hasn’t kept up with the times, either. They, along with Chevrolet as a manufacturer, have fallen behind Toyota and Ford in recent years. Performance across the board has suffered.
This past offseason, Johnson announced 2020 would be his final year racing full-time in the Cup Series. Some people blamed his performance as a factor, some blamed age.
I’d chalk it up to a little bit of both. But I’m going to watch Johnson’s 2020 season through the lens of appreciation. It’s not often that you get to live through an era where the best to ever do it competes. Right in front of your eyes.
That’s what we’ve gotten to see from Jimmie Johnson.
Here's the bottom line: NASCAR literally changed the generation of stock cars the field ran three separate times and changed the playoff field three times along the way.
Regardless, Johnson and Knaus continued winning no matter.
After winning his seventh title, the hashtag “#Chasing8” was a rallying cry for Johnson supporters on social media. But after his announcement, he decided to change that hashtag to something a little more sentimental.
So when Johnson likely competes in his last Daytona 500, and races at Las Vegas, Atlanta, Dover, leads his final laps, perhaps wins his final race, takes his final checkered flag, the list goes on: appreciate it. Because there’ll never be another Jimmie Johnson.
He’s one of a kind.
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