Jimmie Johnson will strap himself into his Chevy one more time Sunday and race off into the first turn. When he finally finishes the day and comes off the fourth turn at Daytona for the final time, we will have come to the end of an era.
A very quiet era.
Johnson will retire at the end of the season, but this race is a season in and of itself. No other race comes close.
And since 2002, when a kid from some place called El Cajon burst onto the scene, no one has come close to dominating the sport as he’s done. As he leaves, and the sport edges toward yet another youth movement, will we know for sure what we saw?
Was he the greatest of all time?
Jeff Gordon thinks so, pointing to the five straight Cup titles Johnson won from 2006 to 2010. Chase Elliott thinks so, pointing to the relentless consistency for almost 20 years and the class and dignity Johnson has shown throughout his career.
They both agree that Johnson has never gotten the respect equal to that of Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt, the only other drivers in NASCAR history to win seven titles.
Like so many other eras in stock-car racing history, the emergence of Johnson came at a time when NASCAR needed him most. In 1964, when Fireball Roberts died, Petty won his first title. When Petty stopped winning races, Earnhardt arrived. Petty’s last race was Gordon’s first. And the year after Earnhardt died, Johnson arrived.
His arrival was muted, as his career would be. He won his first race at Fontana, swept the Dover races and finished fifth in points, well behind the flamboyant loudmouth Tony Stewart. That was fitting somehow. Johnson was never loud or controversial. He was steady and likable.
Thus he was underestimated then and now.
“When he’s gone, people will be like ‘Whoa!'” Elliott said.
Johnson has achieved a curious place in NASCAR history, catching that odd gathering spot on the all-time wins list at 83, which ties him with Cale Yarborough, one win behind Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip.
Johnson, who hasn’t won since 2017, wants two more wins. He’d love 10 more, which would put him even with Gordon, but he sorely wants to get past the giants around him. To be among the five winningest drivers of all time would be a fitting end for his career.
His last two years have been painful to watch, maybe not as painful as watching Petty struggle in his final years or Waltrip in his final years. But to watch Johnson struggle against his own teammates such as Elliott, to watch him inexplicably spin out time and time again, to lose his relationship with Chad Knaus and to essentially be pushed out by Rick Hendrick has been hard.
Another win or two in his final season would be cool.
Which brings us to Sunday. Johnson hasn’t won the Daytona 500 since 2013. He also won it in 2006. But he hasn’t led a lap in either of the last two 500s.
He no longer claims to be chasing an unprecedented eighth title and didn’t want this final season to be about that.
“I felt good letting that ‘chasing’ part go,” he said upon his retirement announcement. “I’m not chasing anything.”
He’s the oldest guy in the game now, and while he’s been OK with “elder statesman” status the last couple of years, it’s finally started to weigh on him. Johnson is finally ready to drive away and chase something else.
He said he’ll go Indy car racing now, road and street racing, maybe even sports car racing. He has goals beyond this year, beyond NASCAR.
But he still has the drive, and he has a very fast Chevy for Sunday.
Could this be how the storybook ends? Or how the storybook season begins?
Whether he’ll admit it or not, there are goals out there still, and one of them just might be to end the argument of arguments.
Is he really the greatest of all time?
That’s not even a question worth asking among NASCAR purists who cling to the days of Petty and Earnhardt. But for this generation of racers and fans, he’s clearly in that conversation.
And he has one more season to prove it.
Jimmie Johnson will ride into the sunset of his final season, the greatest of his time.