In the Driver’s Seat with Jimmie Johnson

Certainly, Jimmie Johnson and his legacy in NASCAR is ageless. (Photo Credit: Zach Catanzareti)

Certainly, Jimmie Johnson and his legacy in NASCAR is ageless. (Photo Credit: Zach Catanzareti)

Without a doubt, Jimmie Johnson contributed endless amounts of incredible memories on and off the NASCAR Cup Series track. If there’s a driver who knew how to respond to the bell in crunch time, then it was Johnson of El Cajon, Calif.

Undoubtedly, Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Ally Chevrolet, will likely be a future NASCAR Hall of Famer. Furthermore, his kindness, outreach to various communities, and role as a vocal leader for diversity speaks volumes about this remarkable man.

Of course, fans will remember Johnson as one of the greatest of all-time in NASCAR. After all, he’s one of three drivers who’ve won seven Cup Series championships. Moreover, his 83 career Cup wins rank sixth in the all-time wins list among the greats like Richard Petty, David Pearson, Jeff Gordon, Darrell Waltrip, and Bobby Allison.

Moreover, Johnson remains as humble and grounded about his successes as he was when he made his first NASCAR Cup Series start on October 7th, 2001, at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Yes, he might’ve gone from the cleanshaven Californian to the iconic, bearded legend. However, there’s no ego with this savvy, competitive racer.

For the past 12 years, I’ve covered Johnson’s career from 2008, the year that he won his third Cup title (third consecutive championship) as a Contributor for Bleacher Report. My first in-depth interview with Johnson happened in late 2016 for The Podium Finish just before he won his seventh and final Cup title.

No matter if it was 2016, ’18, ’19, or earlier this year, Johnson always offered his thoughts with refreshing candor, a good sense of humor, and class. Catching up with Johnson in-depth during the rain-delayed Texas race weekend and after his final Cup race at Phoenix, when he placed fifth, it was a journey down memory lane.

Needless to say, all of us, no matter if it’s a journalist, a rival driver or crew member, or fan, all of us just want to say, “Thank you, Jimmie Johnson.” Now, here’s my last one-on-one with Jimmie Johnson in the NASCAR circles.

Rob Tiongson :  You’ve been working with Ally since last year. But this year, I really would say that their emphasis has been on connecting with fans during this pandemic.

For example, you’ve got the signature car at Martinsville. And then at Texas, you’re running Noah Sweet’s designed car for the race. How special is it to have these initiatives going on?

Above all, Jimmie Johnson and Ally helped realize artist and graphic designer Noah Sweet's dream at Texas.

Above all, Jimmie Johnson and Ally helped realize artist and graphic designer Noah Sweet’s dream at Texas.

Jimmie Johnson :  Yeah, it’s very special, and meaningful. And it’s just the Ally way. I mean, their hashtag #DoItRight is how they live day-to-day, the way they’ve brought me into the family and are honoring me in my final full-time year, and honestly, the way they take care of their customers day in and day out.

So it’s been a real privilege to work for them over the last two years. I certainly hope to maintain a relationship with them in the future. A great bank, great people, great business, great leadership. Very thoughtful, and do an amazing job.

Tiongson :  And I’d say they definitely personify who you’ve been to folks and people like me in the journalism industry. So it’s pretty fitting in your final full-time season that you work with a really cool sponsor like that.

Johnson :  Couldn’t agree more.

Tiongson :  Now I know that you’ve been asked a lot of, “What will you miss?” and what you’re really going to miss. But, I have to ask that question, of course. What are you going to miss about competing full-time in the Cup Series, especially with the fact that you’ve been kind of a leader in voice for positive changes such as inclusion in NASCAR and diversity as well?

Suffice to say, Jimmie Johnson and his wife Chani look forward to more time with daughters Lydia and Genevieve. (Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Suffice to say, Jimmie Johnson and his wife Chani look forward to more time with daughters Lydia and Genevieve. (Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Johnson :  Yeah. As my career has gone on, there’s just been a lot of things that I’ve learned to … how do I say this? I guess it’s been 19 seasons of racing and great success, great opportunities that come with success. As I’ve grown and matured more as a husband, a father, a citizen of the world, my voice has grown along with that as well.

So, there are things that have shown up for me in 2020 to support and be behind that, frankly, I wish they didn’t. I wish that inclusion was a topic of the past and something we’re reflecting on and we’re well through it. But it’s not, so I’m happy to play my part, and hopefully, I’ve been able to have a voice that’s been positive and constructive for those out there.

But at the same time, looking at just the competition side, knowing you’re … when I wake up on Sundays, even in the off-season, it’s race day, and there’s a feeling that comes with knowing it’s race day that you can never replicate. So I feel like that is probably what I’ll miss the most, and that shot of adrenaline, and knowing it’s race day.

And then also the experience of working in a team that … the environment that happens in team sports and the environment in a locker room is just like any other brotherhood that you can imagine. So I think those two elements are the ones I’ll miss the most.

Tiongson :  Definitely, we’re going to miss having you in the full-time circuit starting next year. It’ll be a whole lot different, especially. Getting to cover you in these last few years, I’m glad that I at least had that opportunity to say, “I covered NASCAR while you were racing.”

Johnson :  That’s cool.

Tiongson :  You’re welcome. And as an Asian-American, I can’t thank you enough for being an advocate for good change. It really means a lot to someone like me to know that someone like you is speaking up for people like me and Bubba Wallace. That is probably the most touching thing that I have seen in the last few years, for sure.

Now, looking ahead to next year, of course, you’ve got your deal with NTT IndyCar Series with Chip Ganassi with Carvana. From the non-racing side, what do you look forward to the most in terms of bucket list goals that you couldn’t do while you’re racing in NASCAR? Are there certain countries that you’re looking to visit, like how Jeff did in Japan in 2017?

No matter how this year concluded, Jimmie Johnson gave it his all. (Photo Credit: Landen Ciardullo/TPF)

No matter how this year concluded, Jimmie Johnson gave it his all. (Photo Credit: Landen Ciardullo/TPF)

Johnson :  Yes, travel is a big part of our family kind of wiring. It’s what Chani and I started off doing when we were dating and through our early years of marriage without children. We tried to travel a bit with young ones and realized it was very tough to do. We’re at a good age now, at a good point where we could start traveling.

Of course, now the world is shut down with COVID. But that’s something that we thoroughly enjoy, and enjoy from the cultural experience, and obviously going to cool places and seeing that as well. Trying to learn a second language, which my wife and I are still struggling with. But the cultural and language and being a citizen of the world is just something we enjoy and we want our kids to enjoy and experience so that they get a bigger view of the world and how they can be better citizens of the world.

Tiongson :  I’m sure that’s going to be awesome, for sure. And I can say, as someone who’s lived outside of the US before, you will realize how small our country is when you get to visit other countries. But it’ll be pretty refreshing to do once everything gets back to normal, so that’ll be cool.

Johnson :  Yeah. We really want to spend a year away, if not more. Longer, I should say. So out there in a few years, when I really do stop driving full-time, that’s something that’s really high on our priority list is to live abroad for a year with our kids, if not longer.

Tiongson :  That’ll be really awesome for sure, and I sincerely believe that you’ve earned it, for sure, with what you’ve accomplished. So take a load off when you get that chance, to say the least.

Johnson :  For sure.

Tiongson :  Now, you’ve had some fun moments when you were a young man, before you got married to Chani, including the moment with the toilet paper incident, I think, after Casey Mears’ win in 2007. But is there a particular moment in your Cup career, at least, that you can have a good laugh about years later?

Johnson :  For me, it’s the broken wrist. I mean, I mishandled that situation so bad, slightly because I had to have my wrist reset and wasn’t thinking clearly with pain meds and all that was going on. But I was just having a good time with my buddies on the golf course and ended up with a broken wrist, and tried to be a little creative with the words and what I told my publicist exactly happened.

And lo and behold, one little word of “in” versus “on” gets brought up by a media member that was at the golf course that saw … or heard, actually heard what had happened. And then he calls into the AP desk in New York and decides to make sure that they had that word right of “on” versus “in.”

So the way I look back on that, that was just me. It was just a young guy’s moment of having fun with his buddies. I can laugh about it now today. But, there was a good four to six months where I was pretty upset over that whole thing.

Tiongson :  You know, you’re young, and you have to learn. At least you can have a good smile and laugh about it. And I know when I heard that, I was like, “Oh, no! Jimmie’s hurt himself! What the heck did he do now?” It was hilarious, for sure.

As someone who’s been so successful in your career in NASCAR, a lot of people often say that you learn a lot from your adversities, of course. But as someone that’s been as successful as you, I’m sure there’s had to be ways that you have coped with that so you don’t get overwhelmed and stressed out by the expectations that the outside world might put on you, or even you might put on yourself. So how have you remained humble and grounded with what you’ve gone through in your career?

Ultimately, Jimmie Johnson earned the respect of all racing fans. (Photo Credit: Zach Catanzareti)

Ultimately, Jimmie Johnson earned the respect of all racing fans. (Photo Credit: Zach Catanzareti)

Johnson :  I honestly think, though, my failures have shaped me more than anything, and that’s absolutely the thing that helped me be humble in those highest of highs. And if you look at the statistics, 83 wins in 640-something starts, whatever it is, you do a lot more losing than you do winning.

And being humbled in those moments and dealing with the emotions, trying to find a way to be a leader of your team during those humbling moments, all of that just has wired me a certain way.

When I look back to my younger years and climbing up through the ranks, very similar experiences through all of that as well. So I really do think those hard times have shaped me more than anything in my life.

Tiongson :  That’s quite true. And I think that if you didn’t have those hard times, you wouldn’t appreciate the successes that you got to enjoy and got to experience in your career. So yeah, I would say that’s definitely a good perspective there, for sure.

Has there been a moment when you have fanboyed over a celebrity guest?

In 2009, Jimmie Johnson and President Barack Obama talked shop. (Photo Credit: Pete Souza)

In 2009, Jimmie Johnson and President Barack Obama talked shop. (Photo Credit: Pete Souza)

Johnson :  I would say being around presidents was always one that really got my attention. Yeah, I’ve been very fortunate to meet four presidents. I met Jimmy Carter on a Habitat for Humanity build, like my rookie or sophomore year. I’ve been able to do some things with former president Bill Clinton and his foundation and some of the great work that he’s done with children. And then I’ve been to the White House and met George W. Bush. And then obviously Barack Obama. So those four moments, especially when you’re on White House property, just have a different weight to them than any other person I’ve ever met.

Tiongson :  I would imagine so. And I can’t even imagine what it would be like to meet someone who pretty much is the most, not just most powerful individual in the country, but the person that represents us as a whole.

You ran the Boston Marathon last year, which is one of my bucket list. But one of the things that I was so impressed with is not only you finishing the race, but you overcoming Heartbreak Hill in less than ideal conditions. Considering how well you did in your first time in that marathon, would you be up to doing it again in the future?

Just try running the Boston Marathon a few days after a 400-lap race at Richmond!

Just try running the Boston Marathon a few days after a 400-lap race at Richmond like Jimmie Johnson in 2019!

Johnson :  Yeah, I would. I definitely would. That experience … race day was more than anybody could have ever talked up. That was the most incredible experience. The hard part was the journey getting there, and it was much more mental anguish than it was physical. The physical side, your body kind of somehow finds its way, especially the way I approached it. I was trying to get a pretty aggressive finishing time.

But the mental side and trying to live life on top of this daily check-in, at least once, if not twice a day, where you had to go do that again. And before long, a short run was eight to 10 miles as I was getting into that marathon shape. And that’s just a daunting mental challenge, day after day, doing two a day, trying to run 100 miles a week. Just the mental side of it was far more difficult than I ever, ever imagined. So I would love to do another.

I definitely needed a little break from that. And certainly looking at my schedule being lighter in the years to come, I think I will have that mental bandwidth to reengage and to do it. I met my wife in New York City. We’ve maintained an apartment in New York for 15, 16 years, at least.

Actually, probably 18 years, to be honest with you. So for 18 years. So I feel like the next one on my list would be the New York City Marathon. That’s one … before I ever ran Boston, that’s the one that I was like, “If I’m going to run one one day, this would be the one.” And I need to do that in the years to come.

Tiongson :  That’s really cool and inspirational just because, as I said, it’s a bucket list goal, I think, for a lot of us who want to see how we can push our bodies and minds to the test. I think I told you this before, but you inspired me to get in good shape. So, I am trying to learn how you got in good shape. And if you could ever share those secrets one day, I’d love to know so that I don’t have to feel so sluggish.

Johnson :  Just briefly, though, on that one, I’ve always enjoyed being coached and have found, through that marathon, I’ve found a coach that I honestly became friends with and have a friendship with.

And that accountability and pressure, at times, it’s really what you need to get your butt off the couch and go.

But that pressure has been good. And then to lay out a road map. I mean, I feel like I always was sitting on the couch thinking of the end result. And it was like, “Oh, shoot. There’s no way I can get ready for that.”

But as I finally set a road map to get there, each day you see that progress and the accountability that comes with it and the strength. And you just get better and better.

Before you know it, you’re addicted to it. So trying to find some bite-size bites to take off along the way, or the right approach to lead to that end result, is really how I became so motivated and how it keeps me on track now.

Tiongson :  I’d say it’s served you well, and that’s good advice. I’m going to have to give that a shot because I live in a really hilly part of Austin. So, I’m going to have to give that a shot.

And it’s a shame that COTA got added the year after you’re calling your full-time career complete. I was like, man, that’s a track that I think you would have really loved. But who knows?

Johnson :  And now IndyCar’s not going there, so maybe I can get there in a Cup car still. Wouldn’t be on a full-time basis, but it’s certainly on my radar to look at.

Tiongson :  Yeah. Well, hopefully, that will happen, for sure. I would love to see that. The first one here is, you talked about the golf cart incident, but was there a driver in your career that you would say was the best prankster that you knew in your career?

While Johnson took the checkered flag with his full-time Cup career, he can smile about some fond memories in NASCAR.

While Jimmie Johnson took the checkered flag with his full-time Cup career, he can smile about some fond memories in NASCAR.

Johnson :  Pranks don’t seem to happen much anymore. I think the last driver prank pulled on me was Adam Petty back in ’99 or 2000. It’s been a long time. Now, there are plenty of funny people. Stewart is one that I always enjoyed being around. There’s just humor and story-telling that’s just on a very unique and fun level. Clint Bowyer, clearly in that category.

But from straight-up pranks … I had a birthday prank pulled on me from Adam. We went into a restaurant in St. Louis for dinner, and I came back out. It was my birthday, and my car had balloons all tied to it. So really it wasn’t like some dramatic prank. But that’s one of the last pranks I can recall being done on me.

Tiongson :  That’s gotta change up, for sure. I never knew that Adam had a really funny side to him. That’s really cool to know that, for the short time that we got to know him, that he had a really fun, playful side that at least you guys could experience.

Johnson :  That is how I remember him. That was so much him. I’m happy to share that and help people realize more, that was Adam. I mean, he always had a smile on his face, always telling jokes, always lightening the mood. That’s how I remember him.

Tiongson :  Yeah. I certainly miss him. I know that you do. And a lot of us do in the world of motorsports. 20 years later, and there’s not a day goes by that we don’t think about him. So that’s a trip down memory lane, to say the least, to talk about him even now.

I know it’s a question you’ve probably been asked. But how do you hope fans and competitors will remember you?

Without a doubt, Jimmie Johnson appreciated the teamwork put forth with realizing his racing dreams.

Without a doubt, Jimmie Johnson appreciated the teamwork put forth with realizing his racing dreams.

Johnson :  That’s a tough one. I mean, I wish I had a good answer. Maybe you can help with the summary of it. But my thing was, I just want to race. And that’s where I find myself once again as this is all coming to an end. And I’m looking at what to do in the future. I just want to race and have fun. And I’m in a position where I can kind of call my shot and create some very unique opportunities. So, I’m going to do that.

But I’m a racer. I’m sure I have these incredible statistics, and more has happened than I ever thought was possible. But that’s not me. I’ve always just wanted to race. So I hope I’m viewed as a racer.

And I hope I’m viewed as one of the good guys. But again, it’s kind of uncomfortable and something that’s just not natural to think about and answer on. But I guess I would hope those two things are near the top of people’s list.

Tiongson :  Oh, no. Definitely. I mean, as a journalist, you’re just so humble. I think that’s something that I don’t see a lot of athletes or anyone in a position of influence be these days.

And you never really changed, other than the fact that you grew a beard and all. But otherwise, you’ve always been the nice, really cool person that. As a journalist, I could not help but be in awe of it. I mean, just as people in F1 are in awe of Lewis Hamilton, I think you are our Lewis Hamilton.

Johnson :  I appreciate it. That’s awesome.

Tiongson :  If you could talk to your younger self back in the year 2000 when you knew you were going to get the chance to drive in Cup, would you have believed you were going to have this incredible journey as a seven-time champion?

More than anything else, Jimmie Johnson embraces his title as two-time dad and husband to Chani. (Photo Credit: Jimmie Johnson's Twitter)

More than anything else, Jimmie Johnson embraces his title as two-time dad and husband to Chani. (Photo Credit: Jimmie Johnson’s Twitter)

Johnson : No, there’s no way.  I would have told myself to relax, everything is going to be just fine. I don’t know if I would have asked to change much because I am who I am and all of the overthinking and worrying and the sleepless nights and waking up early to try to find an advantage, all that paid off.

So, I don’t know if I would change anything. But maybe I’d tell myself just to chill out and enjoy the ride because everything was going to turn out just fine.

Editor’s Notes: Special thanks to Jimmie and Amy Walsh Stock for making this interview possible. This interview is dedicated to Patrick Shaw and his family. Patrick, a lifelong race fan, passed away this week after a valiant battle with cancer. Godspeed to the Shaw family.
Rob Tiongson

30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field, and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught my eye. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by me or by one of my talented columnists who absolutely have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. I enjoy editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography.

Graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication. Proud to be from Massachusetts, just as happy to be a Texan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *