Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

Emotions run high for Jimmie Johnson’s Kentucky return after positive COVID-19 test

An upbeat Jimmie Johnson said Friday that his feelings have spanned anger, anticipation and ultimately optimism in the week since his positive test for COVID-19, setting an emotional tone for his return to stock-car racing this weekend at Kentucky Speedway.

Johnson’s remarks came Friday morning in his first interview since he received clearance to return to NASCAR competition. The seven-time Cup Series champion will be back in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for Sunday’s Quaker State 400 (2:30 p.m. ET, FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

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“Obviously, just an interesting week or so to have the positive test and then the two negative tests,” Johnson said in a Zoom video conference with reporters. “Just emotional and a journey that you go through worrying about your safety, your family’s safety, watching a race with somebody else in your race car and the emotion that goes with that. Coming to grips with the reality of all that has been challenging, but I’ve always subscribed to growing through these tough moments, and I feel like I’m a smarter, stronger person today experiencing all this.”

Johnson revealed a positive COVID-19 test July 3, which sidelined him for last weekend’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He also said that his wife, Chandra, had tested positive for the virus, while his children — daughters Genevieve and Lydia — had tested negative. Johnson said he has been asymptomatic throughout; he said Friday that his wife was in good health, save for allergy-like symptoms common this time of year near their Colorado home.

NASCAR officials cleared the way for Johnson’s return Wednesday. The 44-year-old driver was required to have two negative COVID-19 tests spaced at least 24 hours apart, an absence of symptoms, plus clearance by a physician.

Johnson said his initial reaction upon receiving word of his first negative test was anger directed at multiple sources, in part from his uncertainty over the pandemic, his strange lack of symptoms, his children’s fears and his absence from the race track.

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“I started cussing and used every cuss word that I knew of, and I think invented a few new ones,” Johnson said. “So it was just so weird, the anger, because I’ve been asymptomatic. So anger hits, and then speculation in my mind and it’s like wait a second, there is nothing good to come of this. It’s just time to move on. Then I got very excited, started looking at the facts that I’ve only missed one race, I’ve still got a good gap above the cut line and then this optimism about getting that second negative, and then I did. So I feel like I’m more on the optimistic side of things and really out of the dark headspace that I was in and just moving in the right direction and looking forward in all this.” 

The Brickyard absence snapped Johnson’s consecutive-starts streak at 663 races. Xfinity Series regular Justin Allgaier — on standby for Hendrick Motorsports as an alternate driver since the sport returned in May with coronavirus protocols in place — filled in with the No. 48 team. He mustered just a 37th-place finish when a pit-road pile-up ended his day after just 17 of the 161 laps, a result that Johnson said he felt short-changed Allgaier’s chance to shine in a top-tier Cup Series seat.

Johnson said that the reality of missing the Indianapolis event began to set in as the hours ticked down to the green flag, but that participating in the No. 48 team’s pre-race meeting offered a sense of relief.

“Saturday night was the peak,” Johnson said, adding that he had trouble sleeping on the eve of the Indy race. “Sunday morning wasn’t great, but I joined the team call that we do an hour, hour and a half before the race. I was just able to hear the voices of my crew guys, give them a shot in the arm and pump them up and just be involved in that team moment. It’s crazy how it just relaxed me because I was convinced I wasn’t going to watch the race. I’m like, I can’t do it.

“But having that moment to talk to Cliff (Daniels, crew chief), talk to all the guys. Justin was clearly on the call and to hear the words he had to say to the team, it let a lot of that go and I actually watched the race.”

One other element of the Indianapolis weekend that Johnson missed was a scheduled IndyCar test for Chip Ganassi Racing. He got a taste of the vehicle last Thursday at Indy chassis builder Dallara, where he turned laps on its driving simulator. While Johnson said all parties involved were eager to reschedule the session, he added that “everybody’s just giving everything a little time to breathe right now” before setting a makeup date.

As for his stock-car pursuits in what is set to be his final full-time Cup Series season, Johnson sits 15th in the Cup Series standings, just inside the provisional 16-driver playoff field. He received a medical waiver for the postseason if he meets all other criteria for eligibility.

Johnson’s self-reporting of a positive test made him the first driver in NASCAR’s top three series to reveal a COVID-19 diagnosis and to make his way through the sanctioning body’s health protocols for reinstatement. As other sports attempt to resume or start their seasons, and NASCAR continues to navigate through pandemic conditions, Johnson said he doesn’t necessarily have newfound perspective about the process, but only his own experience and course back to the track.

“I don’t know how to add clarity and advice in what changes need to take place,” Johnson said. “I unfortunately feel that there’s a lot to still be learned in the professional field on this, in the medical field on this, and I — like everyone else — am eagerly awaiting that instruction, that knowledge, a vaccine, better testing if it’s required, better screening. There’s just more questions than answers for a lot of us. I certainly don’t have the answers for everybody.”