Jimmie Johnson said with some measure of understatement Saturday morning that “2020’s been interesting.” Indeed, the seven-time champion entered his final full-time season with designs on an eighth, capping a triumphant final ride in the No. 48 Chevrolet, before the coronavirus outbreak made the campaign a disjointed one for the entire NASCAR industry.
Now those objectives come with a large amount of perspective. Johnson revealed a positive test for COVID-19 on Friday, a diagnosis that will keep him under isolation and away from the track for the near future. But the primary concerns for the rest of the year are now much deeper than competition-related goals: Parenting two virus-free daughters, ages 9 and 6, as he and his wife, Chandra, isolate from them with positive tests; maintaining personal health safeguards to contain the spread; and speaking out with a message of staying safe to help others.
“I can be down and out on my situation, but if I turn on the news and see how this virus has impacted so many others, I quickly feel thankful that I’m asymptomatic and I don’t have any major issues,” Johnson said Saturday morning from his Colorado home. “It’d be very easy right now to get bummed out and look at this the wrong way, but I’m healthy, my wife is healthy, my kids are. My prayers are that it stays that way. We’re hopeful that through our situation that maybe some others can learn from this as well.
“I mean, if it wasn’t for Chani’s diligence on trying to do the right thing at all times, we would be going on with life as normal, and who knows who we could have come in contact with and the repercussions that could have had. I know our country and the world right now is over quarantine and over these technicalities that we need to deal with, but as a family that’s been very safe and very cautious to end up testing positive just shows how diligent you truly need to be through all this.”
Johnson will miss Sunday’s 400-mile race (4 p.m. ET, NBC) at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, ending a streak of 663 consecutive Cup Series starts. Xfinity Series veteran Justin Allgaier will drive the Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 in his place, and Johnson will not return to competition until receiving two negative test results at least 24 hours apart, plus clearance by a physician.
Johnson said his wife had exhibited allergy-like symptoms earlier in the week, which prompted her to visit a local hospital for testing. When those results came back positive around 9 a.m. Friday morning, Johnson said he and his children quickly followed suit for their own tests. Johnson said he and his wife tested positive; their children, negative — a divide that has made parenting an especially difficult challenge.
Johnson said the time period since receiving news of his positive test has been a whirlwind, trying to inform all those he had potentially come in contact with in the last several days. That list included Hendrick Motorsports personnel that were with him during last weekend’s events at Pocono Raceway, one of which has self-quarantined from at-track duties out of precaution.
But the list also included those involved a proposed IndyCar test session that was scheduled for next week at the Indianapolis road-course layout. The 44-year-old driver had met with Chip Ganassi Racing officials in advance of the test and spent time Thursday at Indy chassis builder Dallara on its driving simulator.
“We’ve done everything that we think we can and have done everything that we could, so yesterday was extremely busy,” Johnson said. “In some respects, embarrassing to be in this position, and then you just fear that maybe you came in contact with someone that’s going to have a more difficult time than we have had. I feel terrible for Ganassi Racing and any stress I’ve put on their system, clearly Hendrick Motorsports.
“It’s been a wild range of emotions in the last 12 or 14 hours dealing with it all, but we’re doing everything we can on our side to make sure we notify anyone and everyone.”
Jeff Andrews, Hendrick Motorsports vice president of competition, said it’s possible Johnson could return to the track next weekend at Kentucky Speedway if he meets the medical criteria. NASCAR announced Friday that Johnson would receive a waiver for championship eligibility.
Johnson said the unusual circumstances of his final Cup Series season — a two-month break after the initial coronavirus spike, racing without fans in attendance, and an overhauled racing schedule — have not altered his plans beyond the 2020 campaign. He has stated that he still intends to drive on a part-time basis after this year, potentially exploring other forms of motorsports in semi-retirement.
But when asked if there was a bittersweet feel to missing out on several final milestones, including what could have been his last start at Indy, Johnson said there was disappointment mixed with uncertainty.
“Every time I think I know what normal is, something changes,” Johnson said. “Of course, I want to race at the Brickyard. Of course, I’m disappointed that I’m not going to have some of these lasts that I had hoped to have had, but I just don’t know where we’re going to be at the end of this year, let alone next year. I do know that I still want to compete and I’ve made that really clear.
“I’ve had to inform Hendrick Motorsports that I do plan to not be in the car full-time, so they have to plan and do what they need to for the future, but I’m hopeful that I can have the opportunity to come back and run a Hendrick Cup car in some races. Clearly, I have this interest in IndyCar, sports car and many other forms of racing, so I assume that’s helping me deal with this and not feel like I’m having some things taken away from me, but at the end of the day, just thankful that I’m healthy and not in the shape that some people are right now.”