MOORESVILLE, N.C. (September 1, 2020) – It has been a few days since Saturday night’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway. Since the checkered flag flew, some of the Johnson Faithful still can’t get the image of Jimmie Johnson’s battered No. 48 limping it’s way to the finish line.
There, in front of millions, the fans and foes of Johnson collectively watched his opportunity for a record-eighth championship come to an end. There were some probably cheering him on to make the Playoffs. They were probably the same ones who complained about him winning too much back in the day.
But, being winless since 2017 and this being his final season in NASCAR, even the naysayers may have had a nostalgic tug at their conscious hoping he’d get one last Playoff opportunity.
It looked good through Stage 1 and 2 of happening. But, the damn Final Stage and “final lap anything can happen at Daytona” scenario showed up…again.
As his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, William Byron, was racing to his first Cup Series win and a berth in the Playoffs, “Seven Time” was limping to the stripe. The one who had won multiple times at Daytona in 500s, Duels and Shootouts; was watching his championship chances fade in his windshield as others streaked by him.
When the race was over, Johnson didn’t throw a helmet, toss his steering wheel or curse at the world for what happened. He handled things like he always has for the past two decades – with class.
Instead of stomping off to his motorhome, he headed for Victory Lane to congratulate young Byron on the win and Playoff berth. He also congratulated every member of Byron’s No. 24 crew, which is led by Johnson’s former crew chief, Chad Knaus, who led him to all seven of his Cup championships.
That, is what you call a Class Champion. That, is Jimmie Johnson.
When interviewed, the first words out of his mouth weren’t about his misfortune. They were praise for his fellow Hendrick driver.
“First and foremost, congratulations to my teammate getting his first Cup win like that,” Johnson said. “This setting and the drama to go with it – that’s a big win for Chad Knaus and William Byron. I’m really happy for those guys.
“I really felt like we had a way to transfer, to win, or point our way in the way it went in the first two stages. Things just got ugly down in turn one. Unfortunate, but that’s plate racing.”
Ugly is a good word to describe the crumpled hood, sides and fenders on the No. 48 Chevrolet at the end. Coming in to the race, Johnson and Crew Chief Cliff Daniels had been enjoying a surge in success with top-five and top-10 finishes to keep them in contention.
Yes, there was defining moments to make achieving their goal even more difficult earlier this year, and he didn’t shy aware from realizing its impact.
“Yeah, we had a really good car,” Johnson said. “The last couple of months, we’ve been really getting our act together and running well. Definitely disappointed to not be in the Playoffs – that was the number one goal to start the year.
“But when I look back at the disqualification at Charlotte and then missing the Brickyard 400 due to my COVID-19 positive test and only miss it by six points – we did all that we could this year.
“I’m so thankful for Hendrick Motorsports and the career that I’ve had there. Cliff Daniels and these guys on my team – they pour their guts out for me. There’s 10 races left, 10 trophies to go chase and we’ll have to focus our efforts there.”
A true champion isn’t just viewed at the top of their game when winning seems easy. A champion is remembered for how they handled the tough times, and Johnson showed why he’s truly a class champion in the days afterwards.
On the day following the race Johnson took to Twitter and simply said, “I’m down but not out. Bring on Darlington.”