Johnson’s ‘heart is full’ after ending NASCAR career at Phoenix

Jimmie Johnson ended his career as a full-time NASCAR Cup Series driver Sunday at Phoenix Raceway in an impressive showing for the seven-time series champion.

Johnson placed fifth, the highest finisher not in the title hunt. He also led four laps during a cycle of green-flag pit stops.

Meanwhile, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott claimed his first NCS championship, along with the race win.

Afterwards, Johnson pulled alongside Elliott to offer his congratulations. 

“I don’t remember what I said to him. There was a lot of screaming.  I remember him saying, “Can you believe it?”

“Just so happy for him. I’m sure I was saying something along those lines, just how happy I am for him. I saw him on track and left a big donut on the side of his car. I was able to get a high‑five as he was coming around to do burnouts.  And I was waving goodbye. So certainly a couple cool moments.”

Looking back

Johnson was ‘excited’ prior to the race in what would be his 686th career start at the Cup level, reflecting on his incredible NASCAR career.

“Really just excited,” he said. “Excited to do this, excited to get on track and have this final event.  For me the hardest point was about this time last year when thoughts were heavy on my mind and I was going to make the decision and made the decision to myself and my family, then had to go to Rick’s house and talk that through with Mr. Hendrick.  So that point in time was probably the most emotional and most difficult.

“And as the year has gone by, many moments of reflection and just pride.  Then all of that rolled into today and just very excited to be on track. It was nice to be competitive out there and run the top 5, finish in the top 5, but my bucket is full. NASCAR has been so wonderful for me. This journey has been more than I could have ever dreamed of or expected or hoped for.”

He added: “The last couple years on track weren’t as I dreamed up, but I’ve experienced the highest of highs and worked with the greatest people, been with one team through this entire journey, and just very thankful for all the people that have helped me get here.

“All those emotions and all that pride rolled up into just a huge smile today walking out on the grid.”

Changing of the guard

Elliott came from the rear to win the title Sunday, and Johnson did the same to win his final championship in 2016. That fact was on Johnson’s mind even before the green flag at Phoenix Raceway.         

“That’s what went through my mind today when I heard they were going to the back.  I sent Alan (Gustafson) and Chase a text and reminded them that I won a championship that way. Then I saw Chase just before the trucks rolled, just before the driver intro part of the ceremonies this morning, and I reminded him, I’ve been there. Of the championships I’ve won coming from the back, I had less nervous energy in my body when I took the green flag and it was very easy what I needed to do.

“I shared that with him, and he smiled and he said, ‘I hope that’s how it goes today.’ And it did. We didn’t think of it as a passing of the torch, but I tried to share some of my experience with him before the race. He doesn’t need my help.  He’s plenty good on his own. I’m glad it worked out for him.”

Ending on a high note

Johnson ended the season with a top-five finish, admitting “it definitely feels good” to go out strong after so many disappointing results.

“A big tent full of friends here watching. My family was clearly here. I didn’t have too much riding on today. Making sure that I had a good run just because I always plan to run well. In my head I always feel like I should.

“But ultimately this year is just a little bit bittersweet for me.  And to have the issues we’ve had and not be competitive down the stretch, not make the Playoffs, all that still stings. But to finish with a solid top five to close things out is nice.”

Johnson was asked what advice he would offer his younger self if he could. “I would have told myself to relax, everything is going to be just fine,” he quickly replied.

“I don’t know if I would have asked to change much because I am who I am and all of the overthinking and worrying and the sleepless nights and waking up early to try to find an advantage, all that paid off, so I don’t know if I would change anything.

“But maybe I’d tell myself just to chill out and enjoy the ride because everything was going to turn out just fine.”

Johnson now heads to IndyCar where he will compete at every street and road course event with Chip Ganassi Racing. 

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