AVONDALE, Ariz. – Jimmie Johnson wasn’t among the Championship 4 Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, but in his final full-time NASCAR Cup Series start, he was the best of the rest.
In his 686th career start, the seven-time champion placed fifth as the four title contenders finished ahead of him.
Johnson didn’t realize his accomplishment until his daughter, Evie, made him aware on pit road.
“She said, ‘Daddy, I think you won,’” Johnson recounted. “She said, ‘No, the first four cars were in the championship and you beat everybody else.’
“She brought it to my attention and had her own version of my winning, which I appreciated,” Johnson said.
Johnson should be forgiven for not being aware. In the aftermath of the 312-lap race, Johnson had plenty to do and soak in.
After taking the checkered flag, Johnson turned his No. 48 Chevrolet around and drove by the hospitality tent located near turn four that had been setup to accommodate his friends and family that were able to attend.
“I just wanted to wave goodbye,” Johnson said.
On pit road, he took part in a bear hug with Chase Elliott and team owner Rick Hendrick.
Elliott had just clinched his first NASCAR Cup Series title and the 13th for Hendrick Motorsports.
For Johnson, it was the first time he’d seen Hendrick in person since March. That’s when the COVID-19 pandemic began enveloping the country and resulted in the sport shutting down until mid-May.
“There was a lot going on there in one moment I think for all three of us,” Johnson said. “A very meaningful moment for me to be there with Rick and with Chase.”
While Johnson ends his full-time Cup career with a record-tying seven titles and 83 wins, Johnson closed out his last three seasons without a visit to victory lane in a points race.
He last won June 4, 2017 at Dover Int’l Speedway.
Since then, the 45-year-old driver has been through a lot. He’s parted ways with crew chief Chad Knaus, been paired with two subsequent crew chiefs, had a second-place finish in this year’s Coca-Cola 600 disqualified, missed his final Brickyard 400 start due to a positive COVID-19 test and missed out on the playoffs for two consecutive seasons.
Regardless, Johnson ends his full-time Cup career with “my bucket full.”
“It was nice to be competitive out there and run in the top five, finish in the top five,” Johnson said. “I would say I thought I hit bottom a few times (this season), and there was a bottom a little lower than what I envisioned.
“I just had to figure out how to put a smile on my face, what was important to me and what 2020 was going to be like, regardless of the way things took place on the track.
“I really hit that stride. It doesn’t mean I didn’t pout from time to time because performance on track really sets your mood for the week, but I found a way to smile and work through it and finish strong.”
Johnson’s not done racing. Next year, he’ll compete part-time in the NTT IndyCar Series for Chip Ganassi Racing on road and street courses.
While he repeatedly has said he’s open to running select Cup races in the future, Johnson expects it to hit him in the offseason that he’ll no longer be a regular presence in the NASCAR world.
“I won’t have team meetings and 2021 planning meetings, and my trips to the shop won’t be as frequent,” Johnson said. “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’ll continue to set in deeper and deeper then.
“But I feel like I’ve had a special week, a lot of friends in town, I’ve spoken a lot on the phone, a lot of texts, very meaningful conversations, and very thankful that I’ve had that from friends, family, a lot of my peers here today, so I’m feeling pretty full right now.”