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NASCAR's Johnson doesn’t have answer on future plans

Jeff Birchfield • Apr 10, 2020 at 6:00 PM

The 2020 NASCAR campaign was supposed to be the final full-time season for seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.

With the current world situation, the driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has yet to determine if this will indeed be his swan song. He has planned on it, but much will depend on how soon NASCAR gets back on the track and if there is a full 36-race schedule.

“I don’t have any answer just yet because I don’t know what’s going to happen in the coming months and if we’ll be able to run the full season or not,” he said. “I set out to make 2020 my last full-time year, but I’ve always left the door open for other racing and NASCAR for the future and I feel like I’m still pretty much on that path.

“I am hopeful that we get our full year in and we can get that going here in a month or so or whatever the latest projected number possibly could be — and I that can run the season in its entirety. I really don’t have an answer. It’s up in the air just as so much is in the world right now.”

Johnson, an 83-time winner in the Cup Series, has been on a dry streak since tying his boyhood hero, Cale Yarborough, on NASCAR’s all-time win list in June 2017. Still, 2020 was planned to be a celebration of his career and his status along with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the sport’s only seven-time champions.

The 44-year-old racer said he isn’t sad for himself, but he misses paying tribute to the fans.

“I feel more for the fans that wanted to see me at their track and experience that and haven’t,” he said. “I know where I am and I’m very content and fulfilled with the career I’ve had. Sure, I want to be on track and go to these places a final time. I feel more for the fans that aren’t having that opportunity right now than I long for myself to experience it and to be there.”

He’s sympathetic to many of his fans’ plights, knowing how many Americans have been laid off or completely lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic. For that reason, he’s not crying over his situation.

“That’s only a small piece in the grand scheme of things when you look at all the individuals that are affected by the coronavirus and the families that have been affected, and the economy, and businesses and business owners,” he said. “This is way bigger than me. That stuff hasn’t really even crossed my mind, honestly, is why I bring it up.

“There have been so many other issues to think about and be concerned with, that I haven’t thought much about what I might be missing for myself. I see lifelong fans that are sad they don’t get to see me run. It’s about others far more than what effect this has had on me personally.”

Like many of his fellow drivers, Johnson has been competing in the eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series. He is a virtual rookie in the SIM racing world with only three official starts.

A two-time winner of the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, he finished 21st in Sunday’s Food City Showdown on the virtual track. He has been getting a kick out of seeing how some of his competitors have reacted.

“It is interesting to see the personalities emerge there that are similar to the real world,” he said. “I’m not sure if you can hear the in-race stuff that’s going on, but it’s pretty comical. I’m learning more about my competitors (laughs) and how they deal with emotions from time to time.”

Johnson is trying to catch up to younger drivers like William Byron, Timmy Hill and Garrett Smithley, who have combined for thousands of iRacing starts. Even veteran racers like Denny Hamlin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are way ahead of him in the virtual racing world.

Describing it as jumping in head-first, Johnson is still learning the intricacies of the game. To get up to speed, he has averaged about five hours per day, seven days a week for the last two and a half weeks on SIM racing.

Back in the real world, a proposal is that NASCAR run mid-week races to get the full Cup Series schedule. Johnson said he’s willing to do his part and will support whatever decisions are made. He believes a jam-packed schedule could benefit those who spend much of their off-time racing on dirt tracks.

“Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell and some of these guys that have grown up racing dirt are more accustomed to multiple venues in a weekend and all that kind of thing,” he said. “For me, I’ve lived through the testing era, where we spent a lot of time during the week at different tracks and moving around. Those were long weeks, but I enjoyed the physical challenge that went with it.

“The mental side was a little different because you could only focus on where you were at that time. In some respects, it didn’t give you all week to overthink and overprepare for what you were going to do. Whatever a driver experiences, the drivers would probably have it the easiest, and the rest of the industry is really going to have to sort out how to manage that physical and mental endurance that’s going to be required.”

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