Jimmie Johnson’s final ride comes to a close in Phoenix finale

The checkered flag has waved on Jimmie Johnson’s NASCAR career.

After 19 complete seasons and 686 career starts, Johnson is retiring from full-time Cup Series competition. He goes down in the sport’s record book tied for most driver championships, matching only NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Johnson won a series-high five championships in a row.

“My bucket is full,” Johnson said. “NASCAR has been so wonderful for me. This journey has been more than I could have ever dreamed of or expected or hoped for.”

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It all came to a close Sunday at Phoenix Raceway in the Season Finale 500. Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Chase Elliott, earned his first-ever Cup Series championship by not only having the best finish out of the title contenders but also winning the event. Johnson came in fifth.

Johnson didn’t realize the significance of his top-five run until daughter Evie celebrated it on pit lane afterward.

“Daddy, I think you won,” she said.

Johnson politely corrected his oldest of two.

“No,” she said. “The first four cars were in the championship and you beat everybody else.”

Evie was right. Behind Elliott were Championship 4 contenders Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin in order. Johnson couldn’t have placed better among his competition.

The result counted for Johnson’s fifth top five this year and the 232nd in his career. He also closed out with 10 top 10s in 2020 and 374 since his rookie 2002 season.

That was Johnson’s last ride in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet — the same car he steered to Victory Lane a historical sixth-best 83 times since his first win on April 28, 2002 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, his home track. Alex Bowman will take over the entry in 2021.

“I’ve let in about as much as I can,” Johnson said. “I feel like the offseason will happen, and I won’t have team meetings and 2021 planning meetings, and my trips to the shop won’t be as frequent. I’ll still go and still be around HMS just because it’s home.

“But I think as next year comes around and I don’t go to Daytona for the 500 and those firsts that come along, that’s when it will take deeper — it’ll continue to set in deeper and deeper.”

Slowly but surely. Johnson still hopes to run one-off NASCAR races when he can.

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And he’s not leaving the cockpit either, just switching to an open seat. Johnson partnered with Chip-Ganassi Racing to drive in the NTT IndyCar Series part time next year. He actually travels Monday to Monterey, California, for a Tuesday test. He practiced at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama, earlier this week, too.

Johnson is going out on his own terms, which is all he wanted when he announced his retirement plan a year ago.

“I have friends that have been NASCAR drivers, friends of mine that have played professional football, professional baseball,” Johnson said. “Very few have had the opportunity to call their shot and say when they’re gone. Some have had injury, some were forced out, some sponsorship or opportunity passed them by. And either way, watching them, there’s a big voice that I’ve noticed.

“I’m just thankful I won’t have that void.”