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Drivers reflect on Jimmie Johnson’s career: ‘He cared when he didn’t have to’

Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 car had just whisked by on the home stretch, from under the bridge, building speed down the hill and through the final kink before reaching the start-finish line. Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus, his crew chief at the time, were standing on Road Atlanta’s pit lane during testing on that Wednesday in August 2011 as Keselowski roared past.

Just before Keselowski reached the road course’s first turn, his Team Penske test car suffered a severe brake malfunction. The crash would be severe, too.

Instead of arcing into the right-hand bend toward the crest of the hill, Keselowski’s car barely turned. Johnson and Knaus heard the lock-up and saw the car strike the barrier with heavy force, knocking the retaining tires and concrete from their place and compromising the cockpit. The driver and crew chief for the No. 48 team then made their own beeline.

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“We ran for our rental cars. We knew it was going to be a big wreck, and we jumped in the same car and just hauled ass down there,” Johnson recalled. “We were there, less than a minute after the crash, before his crew was there — anybody. We just saw it, reacted and went.

“Obviously, he was hurt, in pain and in a bad situation with the car stuck in the barrier, so I totally remember that. It was kind of eerie because with the only car there, and the noise, the brakes locked up, the engine’s still pulling and then the impact, it was pretty gnarly.”

Johnson and Knaus helped him from the wreckage, and Keselowski was relatively fortunate to emerge with less serious injuries — a fractured ankle, plus several abrasions and bruises. Hobbled and wearing a larger-size shoe to accommodate the swelling, Keselowski gutted out a win the following weekend at Pocono Raceway. A year later, Keselowski claimed his first Cup Series championship, with Johnson pushing him to his competitive limit down the stretch.

So flash forward nine years later, with Johnson in the midst of his final Cup Series season: Drivers were asked during a media productions day to recall their enduring memories of the seven-time champion. Keselowski’s remembrance stemmed from that day at Road Atlanta, a recollection that’s stuck with him ever since. “He cared when he didn’t have to,” Keselowski said in expressing his admiration during his title-winning season, later noting that Johnson was the only driver at the test who came to his aid.

Johnson chalked up the response to human nature and instinct, saying there was “no second thought” in rushing to the crash scene. But it clearly held personal meaning for Keselowski.

“I could sense he was appreciative and thankful then, and I believe the next race we went to, again being thanked,” Johnson said. “To hear that he still remembers that today, that is cool. I didn’t know that it had that effect on him or meant that much to him.”

It’s a testament to Johnson that sometimes a man isn’t measured by the number of championships or victories, even when those career numbers (seven and 83, respectively) are among the sport’s most celebrated. Johnson has had that effect on many in the NASCAR garage, and the outpouring of respect from his fellow drivers has been an overwhelmingly positive theme through his final full season. Recognition has also flowed in from tracks and the No. 48 team’s fans, though those tributes have been muted to a degree by limits on attendance, at-track time and social interaction posed by the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Support from my peers is the most meaningful thing, and it’s been that way for me my entire life in racing,” Johnson said. “To hear, to see, to read comments from the competitors, my peers, has really been awesome. From the tracks and my fans, I feel like there’s been a bit of void there obviously without being able to celebrate as I had hoped, as they had hoped and with what tracks have planned for, it’s been a bummer. Obviously, we’re in the middle of a pandemic and I understand why, but that side of it I still feel a void, for sure.”

It’s also a testament to Johnson that his nearly two decades in the sport haven’t yielded a consistent rival among his peer group. Petty had Pearson (and Allison, for that matter), Waltrip had Yarborough (and later Earnhardt), and Earnhardt had Gordon (and the rest of the field, just depending on the era).

Aside from some back-and-forth at isolated points of his career with Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, Johnson hasn’t had a regular, bitter antagonist. Instead, his career has been more regularly marked by the spirited but fair battles for championships than the occasional dust-ups, which Johnson says are just part of racing at NASCAR’s top level.

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“We all put our helmets on, and we all say and think much differently in the competitive moments than we do outside of the car,” Johnson says. “I’ve been able to separate the two worlds and go race, and you do all you can there. Then you get out and it’s a little different world than what happens in competition, so I’ve had great friends that I’ve been able to compete against and race hard against.

“I’d say Jeff Gordon has been kind of a peer and a mentor and a rival all at once, which is kind of crazy to think of, but we’ve been able to navigate through that. I kind of look at my championships over the years, it’s been against a different competitor each year, and that rivalry is hard to ever let that fade. It just takes that relationship to the next level. In the biggest way, though, is from respect of knowing how these rivals and rivalries have made me better in the process.”

In some ways, this was never going to be a customary rocking-chair sendoff tour for Johnson, whose vision for his quote-unquote retirement includes a bucket list of motorsports cross-training and the potential to return for stock-car one-offs. A two-year deal with Chip Ganassi Racing means the 45-year-old driver will dip his toe into the IndyCar world starting next season. A late July test in Ganassi’s No. 10 entry on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course “only lit the fire more.”

In a season that produced a positive coronavirus test, the end of his consecutive starts streak and another playoff miss while sometimes racing in a vacuum without fans in attendance, the lure of still being a racer in his post-retirement years has provided Johnson with motivation.

“It has not felt like a farewell,” he says, “and knowing all along that my plans were to still race but to try to find what I was going to race and where, and then as this year has worn on, I’ve been able to really pinpoint what I want to do and what my opportunity is, but I feel like that journey has given me a little bit of excitement and hope and the right frame of mind where I haven’t been thinking too much about how the pandemic’s affected my final year.

“If this was my last year ever, I think it’d be easy to have a bitter taste in my mouth about how this has all played out, so to have something to look forward to, it’s been one of the many silver linings that have popped up this year that were unexpected.”

Among the things that will take getting used to in the post-Johnson era: Alex Bowman as the new driver flying the Ally colors as his replacement with the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team. But even before Bowman was tapped Oct. 6 to succeed Johnson, the team’s partnership with its primary sponsor was already secure, thanks to an extension that keeps the bank’s branding on the car through the 2023 season.

“I think he’s going to have a great time with Ally,” Johnson said of Bowman’s move. “They certainly like to shake things up. They’re progressive, they’re current. The way they use the driver and the car and the team as assets, I think he’ll really enjoy, and I know they’re excited to start this relationship as well.”

The traditions that Johnson has established, his peers often volunteer, include more than just winning. There’s also the mantle of respect, borne from a willingness to care for his fellow driver and to pay that respect back.

“I feel like the biggest thing is just how he treats people, treats everybody at the shop, and just how he is as a person,” Bowman says. “He’s so humble. He’s had more success than anybody currently racing has and he’s still the nicest guy in the garage, the easiest guy to talk to and just a really good person. Just how he carries himself — we should all definitely be a little more like Jimmie sometimes.”

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