One of the first people to greet Alex Bowman at Auto Club Speedway’s Victory Lane celebration in Fontana, Calif. this past Sunday was Jimmie Johnson, his seven-time championship-winning teammate at Hendrick Motorsports.
Johnson was there to congratulate Bowman on his dominating drive in the 200-lap Auto Club 400, where Bowman beat reigning NASCAR Cup Series champ Kyle Busch by nearly nine seconds. Shortly after Johnson made his move to congratulate Bowman, Ross Chastain appeared behind him and doused the winner with some icy cold water down the back. Different generations celebrate in different ways, I guess?
It was a gracious move by Johnson and certainly not unexpected. Jimmie Johnson has grown up and matured right in front of all of us and, at the end of the current season, will step away from his No. 48 Chevrolet and race what he wants, when he wants. He might race at the Fontana oval again, or not. He might race some INDYCAR road courses, might contest more IMSA or World Endurance Championship (WEC) races, might do whatever he pleases in desert racing, where he weaned his talents.
Thus far the 2020 season has been a good one, statistically, for the No. 48 team and Johnson, if you overlook his issues at Daytona, getting caught up in an accident that took him out in the third and final stage. Johnson had run top-10 in the first two race stages of the Daytona 500 and looked primed for a good result. Didn’t happen. In Las Vegas, the Ally Chevrolet ran ninth and seventh in the first two stages and completed the 400-mile contest in fifth place.
Last weekend’s home race gave Johnson even more hope for a compelling race season, as he qualified second to Clint Bowyer, finished third in the first two stages and completed the race in seventh place. He led 10 laps in the process and now holds fifth place points behind Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano, Bowman and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick.
Maybe it’s the knowledge that this is his final full season; maybe it’s a change of leadership for the No. 48 team as Johnson’s 21st full-time season unfolds. “I certainly have a lot I want to prove this year and certainly hope to have the ultimate happen,” he said of a possible eighth, record-setting title. Working with Cliff Daniels, who took over as crew chief in late July of last year, Johnson has moved on from his long tenure with Chad Knaus and appears competitively invigorated.
Jimmie Johnson won his first Cup race at California Speedway in 2002 and had hoped to bookend his full-time NASCAR career with a win on Sunday. It wasn’t to be but racing competitively has to feel comfortable for the veteran Southern Californian who made the right alignment choices on entry to the upper levels of NASCAR racing, joining Rick Hendrick and Chevrolet at the onset of his Cup career.
“My timing worked out where team, manufacturer and organization was all at its peak and I was able to ride that wave for a long time. I really attribute my success to the timing of those four key pieces, being in the right spot. It’s giving and people” that made his career so long-lived and successful.
After the race Johnson acknowledged, “This team is going in the right direction. I know in my heart what I’m capable of and what this time is capable of. It’s just taken a little bit to get the right people in the right places, and rebuild and get this Ally Chevy exactly where it needs to be.
“We just couldn’t adjust this car on the pit stops quite enough to get the tight out of it,” a common problem for just about everyone Sunday afternoon. “I was pretty disappointed the way it finished and ended up seventh, but it’s a good sign of where we’re heading.”
So while Jimmie Johnson prepares for the next race and those that follow NASCAR’s trip to Phoenix this coming weekend, he’s looking forward – as well as recognizing his personal achievements in the sport. And of all the lessons he’s learned over the years, one stands out above all others: “Trust your instincts. Trust everything you’ve done to get here.”
By Anne Proffit