Remembering Jimmie Johnson ~ Through the Wrecks
I knew Jimmie Johnson’s retirement was coming, just didn’t know when. I knew he had more laps behind him than ahead. Just didn’t know that 2020 was going to be it.
Since the announcement the NASCAR Nation has been 24/7 Jimmie Johnson... as it should be. I do wonder how that makes 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Champion Kyle Busch feel being moved from front and center of the NASCAR limelight? But then again, it’s not every day that a seven-time Cup Champion announces when they will end their full-time racing career.
As everyone is doing their reflections on Jimmie and his outstanding career, we’ve read or heard story after story of his wins, his championships and his off-track activities. It is through this tapestry of sharing we get a fuller picture of the man, the driver and the mark he has made on the sport.
I tend to look at things a bit differently though. It’s the wrecks that will be what I remember.
Jimmie Johnson caught my eye early on when he entered the Busch now Xfinity Series. There have been few drivers who came along who caught my eye like he did but from the start he was one. I rarely say, “Watch this guy”, but Jimmie was one I felt I could. And I said it... a lot, to anyone who would listen and some who wouldn’t. Back then there were so many more people who wanted to talk racing.
It was the 2000 wreck at Watkins Glen that the folks I had told saw what I was talking about. It was his 23rd Busch Series start of his career, the 17th of the season when on lap 47, Johnson screamed down the long front straightaway and was overtaking another car when he lost the brakes at the worst place possible.
The car broke right avoiding the other car, left the track to the inside, crossed the track becoming airborne in a jump that would have made the Duke boys proud, bouncing once in the gravel pit before slamming head-on into a bank of fortuitously placed Styrofoam blocks. The blocks exploding on impact was scary impressive. The stop scary abrupt. The harrowing, four second ride launched him into the racing forefront.
He handled it and the aftermath in a cool calm that was his manner. He gave it the necessary attention, but he didn’t get overly torn up about it. As dramatic as it was, we learned it wasn’t the worst wreck in his young career. He explained that wrecking in an off-road desert race, having an injured co-driver and not being found for 24 hours was worse, putting things in perspective.
That wreck caught everyone’s eye and he built on that. It wasn’t long before a Cup ride entered the picture and the wins started coming... followed by more wins... followed by a championship... followed by more championships.
As much as the Watkins Glen wreck caught attention and made impressions, it was a wreck-strewn, 13 caution flag-one red flag 2005 UAW-GM Quality 500 win that I saw first-hand what made him different.
Humpy Wheeler had levigated the Charlotte track before the 600, grinding down the surface of 1.5-mile track to eliminate the bumps drivers were complaining about. That created major tire issues during the longest race in May. The solution was to levigate it some more before the October race. Now silky smooth, the track was even more crazy fast- speeds and tire heat was more than the Goodyears could handle. In a scary, almost predictable frequency, tire explosion after tire explosion slammed driver after unfortunate driver into the wall, ending their race or hampering their chance for a win.
Writer Ed Hinton of the Orlando Sentinel reported 42 of the 43 cars had tire issues that race. He never identified the one who didn’t, but he didn’t have to. It was the driver who had won the “Levigation 600” here back in May-Jimmie Johnson. I finally got to see in person what I had only seen on TV as Johnson sliced unscathed through the unintended mayhem, avoiding wreck after wreck while driving to the edge of the limits of car, tires and track to become the 34th leader of the race and lead the final 12 laps for the win.
In retrospect, it was quite a drive.
Not only did he take flag, the trophy and the winner’s purse in this his 18th Cup win, but he made up a 92-point deficit to jump from fifth to a tie for first with a furious Tony Stewart. Tony would go on to win the 2005 Championship, but Jimmie would get the next Championship... and the next and next and next and next before Tony could best him again.
The race is often ranked in the Top Ten, in some circles the Top Five worst NASCAR Cup races ever, but looking back, the 18th wreck-strewn win (19 if you count by using the Kyle Busch fan method) in his young career may have been one of his best. It was the last one before becoming a Champion. Seeing it in person reinforced my impression of him and his driving.
Fast forward to Pocono 2017. Jimmie entered the race as 2016 Cup Champion, his seventh. In the first 13 races of the 2017 season, Jimmie had won three, including back to back wins at Texas and Bristol, along with a win the previous week at Dover. He was the winningest driver to date, followed by Martin Truex Jr. and Brad Keselowski with two each.
On lap 97, like at Watkins Glen so many years before, Johnson got to the end of the long straightaway, applied the brakes to negotiate Turn One. At 200 MPH the pedal went to the floor and Jimmie was in for another harrowing ride, this time into steel-fronted Styrofoam, SAFER barrier. (Thanks to nascargavin8 for the video and MRN mix).
It was a hard hit, first right rear, the impact whipping the car and slamming the right front into the barrier, followed by a long slide along the barrier. Jamie McMurray followed, slamming the wall behind Johnson. He continued around the track until he had to stop and exit the car as flames engulfed it.
Everyone watching held their collective breaths until the window net dropped and Johnson finally crawled out of the car and leaned against it to collect himself. He would later move to the front of the car and rest against the SAFER barrier trying to recover from what MRN’s Dave Moody described as a “vicious hit.”
Ryan Blaney went on to win the race, his first. Johnson would finish 36th. Jimmie would go on to finish the season make It into the Playoffs, into the Round of Eight, before finishing 10th in the 2017 Points. Sandwiched between these two wrecks-the 2000 Watkins Glen Busch Series brake failure and the 2017 Pocono brake failure were seven Cup Championships-five in a row along with 83 Cup wins. A stellar run by any standard.
But the most telling wreck of his career, the one that says it all when I think of Jimmie Johnson was not one of his but one of his competitor’s - Brad Keselowski. And it wasn’t in a race but in an August 2011 test session. Brad tells the story of that day and what Jimmie Johnson did and he means to him in this interview with Graham Bensinger.
“The most balanced race car driver we have ever seen in the sport. I’m trying to measure my words here (pause) He’s good in every category... every category-physical strength, mental strength, talent, (pause) leadership qualities... in all those things... and on. He’s good in all those categories. He’s the most balanced driver the sport has ever seen.”
Brad’s words are deliberate and carefully chosen. Clearly not meant for just any driver. But more than those words, his description of Jimmie’s actions that day were those of a Champion, a true Champion and that’s what I’ll remember most about Jimmie Johnson.
Best wishes on a safe and successful 2020. It’s been a heck of a ride. Thank you.