Jimmie Johnson doesn’t yet know when he’ll walk away from racing.
He’s seen plenty of staples, such as Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, announce their retirements in recent years, but has no such plans of his own.
“The thing I go off of — when I was 5 years old racing dirt bikes, there’s an experience I have competing out there in the moment racing and that moment is as intense as it’s ever been,” Johnson said. “That’s what I’m going off of. When that dulls and goes away, I’ll step down.”
At 41, Johnson remains among the top drivers in the sport and secured a spot in the championship round with a win at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway on Sunday afternoon. This marks the first time under the knockout-style format now used by the Chase for the Sprint Cup that Johnson has made the Champion 4 berth in the season finale, which will be held at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 20.
But Johnson will also be a favorite to win the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway this coming Sunday. This is a race Johnson has won the past four years. Only six drivers in NASCAR history have won a particular race four consecutive times.
“We’ve had strong cars and then we even had some stuff just come our way,” Johnson said of his string of success at Texas.
... There’s an experience I have competing out there in the moment racing and that moment is as intense as it’s ever been. ... When that dulls and goes away, I’ll step down.
Jimmie Johnson, on when he’ll know it’s time to retire from racing
That includes his 2014 fall victory in which he somewhat spoiled the Chase by becoming a non-Chase winner. Gordon, his teammate at the time, had the race seemingly under control until Brad Keselowski made a daring move and cut Gordon’s tire.
It ended Gordon’s night and ignited a postrace brawl between Gordon and Keselowski. It also paved the way for Johnson to take the checkered flag.
“Jeff had the fastest car and came up and passed me the run before and he had things in control,” said Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet. “Then the flat tire kind of put it back in my lap. So I’ve had racing fortune, but have always had a strong car too.”
Johnson is TMS’ all-time wins leader with six, double the next closest driver (Carl Edwards, who has three).
Johnson’s dominance shouldn’t come as a surprise. He has 79 career Cup victories, seventh all time, and is trying to join Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty as the only drivers with seven championships.
Sunday’s win gives Johnson a chance to get No. 7 this season, but he’s never won at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
It’s a track at which he’s won two poles and has 10 top-10 finishes in 15 career starts. Johnson pointed to the 2012 season in which he led 25 laps in the second half of the race at Homestead before an oil cooler line failed them.
“It’s not our best track, but we’ve been able to figure it out a couple times,” Johnson said. “You never know. We’re still making our cars better every week, so hopefully when we get to Homestead our stuff is untouchable.”
Even if things fall into place this season for Johnson and he joins racing royalty with Earnhardt and Petty, he still doesn’t know when he’ll call it a career.
Johnson said chasing records is not why he’s doing this into his 40s.
No joke, my dream was to win a race. That was it. Like that was such a big accomplishment. To have the trophies and championships now is mind-blowing.
Jimmie Johnson, on why chasing a record-tying seventh championship isn’t why he competes
“Sure, there’s some marks in front of me that I’d love to surpass, but it’s not why I got into racing,” Johnson said. “It’s not what I sit up thinking about at night. Just as any competitor would say, ‘Wow. OK, I got six. I’d love to get seven.’ Heck, I’d love to get eight and beat them. Of course, yes I would.
“But, no joke, my dream was to win a race. That was it. Like that was such a big accomplishment. To have the trophies and championships now is mind-blowing.”
When Johnson’s desire to race goes away, he said, “We’ll see how many trophies I have then.”
That is music to the ears of many within the racing world, including TMS president Eddie Gossage.
Gossage understands that the sport is always in flux with regard to drivers coming and going, but the sport would be hard-pressed to replace a modern-day legend such as Johnson.
“Enough guys have retired. We don’t need Jimmie to be thinking about it,” Gossage said. “Jimmie is still the favorite anytime he’s in the race. Do not bet against him. When it comes time to put up or shut up, they’re always in position to win the whole thing. You do not bet against the six-time champ.
“Jimmie is just an amazing driver and he’s never given enough credit. He is ‘it’ and deserves to be the model under which everyone else is held up to.”