Jimmie Johnson knows all athletes – no matter the talent level or number of trophies on the shelf – will reach the end of their careers one day.
He also knows that as the No. 48 team searches to rediscover its once-upon-a-time dominance, people have been speculating that maybe he’s done. That maybe, at 42 years old, he doesn’t have what it takes to compete at NASCAR’s top level anymore.
But sitting atop a hill overlooking scenic Sonoma Raceway, his demeanor as relaxed as ever, the seven-time champion said he doesn’t believe his time has come. Not yet.
"Some want to think that my time has come and passed – and it happens for all athletes," Johnson told NASCAR.com. "And that could be the case, time will tell. In my heart, I don’t believe that’s the case. I’ve never been more focused, dedicated than I’ve ever been and having a sense and feel of the race car. I’ve always loved challenges and I look forward to proving that aspect of it wrong and it’s just a journey."
With seven championships and 83 wins, Johnson’s lustrous career has led the industry to view his 39-race winless slump under a microscope. The three races he did win in 2017 and his accompanying playoff berth (which he’s made every year since the format’s inception) have been quickly forgotten. Just two years ago, he and the No. 48 team were celebrating their record-tying seventh Monster Energy Series championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
For most drivers, 39 races would be more of a hiccup than a signal of a dwindling career – but Johnson’s success has made his standard different.
At beginning of the year, crew chief Chad Knaus said his driver had "recommitted" himself to the No. 48 team. It’s something Johnson does each season, but was more publicized this season with the team’s ongoing struggles.
"Every year I kind have that journey in the offseason, figure out what I can do differently," Johnson said. "And it was largely around just creating a locker room. It’s easy to have that locker-room environment when you have success and everybody’s high-fiving and all the fun’s taking place and you’re winning. But last year was a tough year and this one’s turned out to be a tough one so far. To keep that locker room and the energy, to keep the energy in a space where people still stay creative … that’s just something that I felt like I haven’t done well or haven’t done my part as a team leader, to create that environment in tough times. So, I got really focused on it over the offseason. …
"I don’t need to prove myself," he said later. "I know that much. And I think folks that would say that, I have no chance of making a fan – they’ve never been a fan, so they’re never going to be a fan."
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While a seven-time champion doesn’t have to prove anything, he does have to field the questions from fans, media and everyone in between. Because there’s still a sense of inquiry that comes when an immensely successful athlete like Johnson doesn’t look like Superman anymore.
It’s happening to a degree with Tom Brady. It happened with Michael Jordan. And it will continue to happen with Johnson – until he wins again.
"I’m trying also to be very aware of the success that I’ve had; it’s been a hell of a run, it really has," Johnson acknowledged. "I don’t expect any sympathy from anyone out there because we’re going through a tough spot. It’s up to me and it’s up to this race team to dig in and make ourselves better and more competitive. I’m very much in that space and love a good challenge."
There’s another challenge off the track, too, though. With today’s prevalence of social media, the ability to shield themselves from harsh media coverage and fan criticism has become harder for athletes. Many years ago, Johnson learned an important lesson in that area from the NASCAR Hall of Famer who helped launch his career, Jeff Gordon.
"If you look for your validation through media in all forms – social media, outside media, sports media – that’s a lonely road," Johnson said. "And Jeff Gordon, that’s one of the many lessons he taught me in the beginning, is like, ‘You know what’s going on with your team in the walls of your team and just stay focused on that. Don’t let the outside influence that.’ He told it to me at a point in time when I had just won my first race and all this good stuff going on. And he also said, ‘If you’re going to read all the good and listen to all the good, you’ve got to take the bad.’ So, his decision was not look at anything, not read anything and just stay neutral. So, I have adopted that same thing.
"This is pre-Twitter and all the other social (media) forms. It’s hard not to see that and to identify with it or talk to it or whatever goes with it. But the way I deal with it is knowing what we do week in and week out and how the shop’s preparing, what my team’s doing, that’s really what it comes from."
He also has to answer questions from another, inquisitive source: his 7-year-old daughter Evie, whom Johnson said hadn’t been hyper-aware of his career wins or losses until recently.
"I really feel this year with the age of Evie that she’s more engaged, more aware," Johnson said. "And it’s led to a lot of different questions. We’re trying to teach her how to carry herself the right way, to handle things the right way. I can hear my voice speaking to her at times when I’m dealing with things that are tough. It’s been an interesting kind of check for myself that I didn’t see coming."
In teaching Evie how to carry herself, Johnson is also learning how to be patient. The Hendrick Motorsports driver is accustomed to going to tracks each week with the intention – the expectation - of putting the No. 48 in Victory Lane.
Expectations have to temper now and that’s hard for a competitive person like Johnson. The team made strides with a top five at Charlotte Motor Speedway and then took "three steps back" with a 20th-place effort at Michigan International Speedway, where Johnson said they just didn’t have the car they needed throughout the entire weekend. He most-recently finished 11th at Sonoma Raceway, the first road course of the season.
"We’re getting stronger and we’re trying to stay patient with it," he said. "It’s tough to go to your best tracks and pull out a third or a fifth when you show up for years walking through the gates like, ‘We could take a trophy out of here today.’ So, that’s been a reset for me, especially my Cup career; look at my Busch career and other levels or racing, I’ve had tough points along the way.
"So, I’m being reminded of that and just digging in deeper. Figuring out how I can be a better teammate. In some respects, I just need to be patient and let the team and the organization, let Hendrick Motorsports grow and get stronger.
"It’s not ideal right now, but I’ve been doing this long enough to know that it comes in cycles. And I am just eagerly awaiting for our cycle to be back on top."