Race Weekend Central

A Rare Gut Feeling Tells Jimmie Johnson ‘It’s Time’ to Retire

The feeling Jimmie Johnson had been waiting for to decide on his future as a full-time NASCAR Cup Series driver arrived as the calendar flipped from September to October 2019.

And it was a feeling that he hadn’t experienced in many years.

“It was such a profound moment that I really take it back to the moment in time where I knew I wanted to buy a ring for her (wife Chandra),” said Johnson.

“It was just that strong in my stomach. I was like ‘wow, this is what I want to do.’”

At a Thursday (Nov. 22) Hendrick Motorsports press conference with owner Rick Hendrick, Johnson shared he knew he needed to make a decision before the end of the year. He has collected seven Cup Series championships and 83 race wins but hasn’t visited victory lane since June of 2017 at Dover International Speedway. With his current contract set to expire after the 2020 season, the question of whether Johnson would retire or sign a new contract has been on everyone’s mind, including Johnson’s.

When the gut feeling arrived, it told him to retire.

But Johnson made clear multiple times Thursday those off-track emotions were separate from on-track performance. The choice was not made by the struggles the No. 48 team has experienced over the past few seasons.

“Truthfully, it had very little implication on me making this decision,” said Johnson.

“I’ve been waiting for that feeling to show up, and I didn’t know when, and I didn’t know why, but it did. And, in my heart of hearts, it was not because of the struggles of the last couple of years.

“Life is a journey, as we all know. Motorsports is a ruthless sport. And, it doesn’t matter who you are. It can beat you up and spit you out the other side. I feel so fortunate that I had just this magical moment for so many years with five in a row and the seven championships that we had.”

When his mind was made up, he first had to go speak with Chandra and then it came time to speak with car owners Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon.

Hendrick was “shocked” when Johnson told him about his decision to retire.

“Every time one of these drivers call me and come to my house, I know that’s not a good situation,” said Hendrick as he started to laugh.

Johnson said that at the meeting, he had to repeat himself 2020 was going to be his final year. Johnson said, “And then the fourth time (I mentioned it) he (Hendrick) said, ‘I guess you’re serious about this, aren’t you?’”

Hendrick said that he had previously told Johnson that he wasn’t on a “clock,” and whatever he wanted to do, the team would find a way to make it work.

“He has set the foundation and the benchmark for us at this company,” Hendrick said, “That we’ll always stride to get [to].”

Johnson mentioned he has spoken with former NASCAR drivers such as Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to discuss retirement with them.

“Some of those guys maybe set a date and left before their heart really wanted to leave,” said Johnson. “There are a lot of other athletes that their time is called, and they don’t have that opportunity to pick their own [time]. I feel very blessed and fortunate to have this opportunity [to leave on my own]. It just feels right.”

One of the questions linked to Johnson’s impending retirement was Ally Financial’s response, who had last month signed a three-year extension with Hendrick Motorsports. Hendrick and Johnson had been upfront about the possibility of Johnson’s retirement following the 2020 season.

“They were hoping that Jimmie (Johnson) would run for five more years, but they knew that, and they were aware that [this] could happen,” said Hendrick. “They’re excited because I think you’ll see Ally get behind him as a sponsor in his last year like you’ve never seen anyone send a guy out before.”

Reflection was a major part of Thursday’s announcement. Both Johnson and Hendrick agreed that of the 83 wins they have together, the first at Auto Club Speedway in 2002 was the most special.

“My dream was to be a Cup driver and to win a race,” said Johnson. “That was the top for me. So to be able to do that in my 13th start at my home track, that was a very special moment.”

Johnson then told the story of meeting Bob Tillman, former CEO of Lowe’s Home Improvement. Johnson had just arrived back in town from a sponsor commitment for his Busch Series (now Xfinity Series) team. He said that Tillman wanted to meet him and see if he was fit enough to be their driver.

“At that point, I hadn’t won a race and [Tillman] literally stared across the boardroom table and put me on the spot. He asked me if I thought I was able to win a race. And I dug deep and sat there, and I felt like I lied right into his eyes, and I said, ‘Yes sir, I can!’ Thankfully we’ve delivered 83 times since.”

Hendrick believes a first win breaks the ice and remembers standing next to Tillman when Johnson slid through his pit box that day.

“He (Johnson) has so many wins. But the celebration when you win your first one, I think that’s the one.”

Johnson did reaffirm past comments, that this decision by no way means he is done behind the wheel of a racecar.

“This is not retirement from racing; this is stepping down from the 38 weeks a year that it takes to be competitive and the time that goes with that,” said Johnson. “I would come back and drive Cup for Mr. Hendrick; all options are open, honestly.”

“I wouldn’t mind going and getting dirty again, with the history I have of off-road racing in the dirt. I’ll just kind of wait and see.”

Two series have already begun their courtship of Johnson.

IMSA tweeted they have dibs and will see him at the 2021 Rolex 24.

And the World of Outlaws NOS Energy Drink Sprint Cars responded to Johnson’s retirement video posting on Wednesday by simply tweeted the following:

“I saw them all pinging me on social media, like hey dibs! Come race here,” said Johnson.

Johnson followed up saying that he hasn’t begun any discussions with any teams, nor has he “even thought about it.” He has left the door open to trying just about anything but fast ovals in IndyCar.

As final thoughts were exchanged, the emotions started to hit Johnson as Hendrick called him “buddy” and thanked him for being a champion, leader, and friend.

“You’ve given us all these championships and done some unbelievable things. We’ll always be grateful. And we’ll always be appreciative.”

Hendrick added, “And, I’ve got your number!”

Johnson’s response was, “Thank you,” as he placed his hand on Hendrick’s shoulder as he fought back the tears.

About the author

Josh Roller is a 2019 graduate of the Sports Capital Journalism Program at IUPUI in Indianapolis. While in school, he covered the 2018 Indianapolis 500 and the 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship. He was an extern for INDYCAR in 2019 and interned with Charlotte Motor Speedway's Communications Department in 2020. Besides writing the Xfinity Breakdown for Frontstretch, he also does a weekly podcast with a friend he met at the 2018 Indy 500, Rob Peeters, called the Racing with Rob and Roller podcast.

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Bill B

Maybe it was just a bad bit of meat he ate.

Carl D.

Maybe the sushi was left out overnight…


“Every time I look at the points standings I get sick. It’s happening a lot.”

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