CONCORD, N.C. – Jimmie Johnson’s legacy in the sport is easy to see on paper.
Seven NASCAR Cup Series championships, tied with legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most all-time.
The most wins of any active driver, 83, which is tied for sixth-best all-time.
He visited Victory Lane in 16 consecutive seasons and has led at least a lap in more than 50 percent of his starts.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg for the driver of the No. 48 Ally Chevrolet. But with 2020 set to be his final full-time season in the Cup Series, Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick said Johnson’s impact can’t be measured solely by statistics.
“The stats speak for themselves, but people are going to remember the man, Jimmie Johnson,” he said. “I think the thing people are going to watch and appreciate more after he retires is what kind of person he was, how he raced people, what he did off the track – just a real model citizen.”
From the way he dealt with fans, partners, teammates and competitors at the track to his contributions through his charity and his home life as a family man away from the track, Hendrick said Johnson checks every box.
"The stats speak for themselves, put people are going to remember the man, Jimmie Johnson."Rick Hendrick
Chad Knaus, who was atop the pit box as Johnson’s crew chief for 17 of the driver’s 18 full-time seasons so far, echoed that sentiment.
“On the racetrack there is a level of expectation,” he said of Johnson’s excellence. “When somebody gets away from the racetrack, how they act outside of the limelight, outside of everyone else’s eyes, that’s the true judge of what that person is. And Jimmie is such a standout in that arena.”
As for Johnson himself, he said he defines his legacy not by wins, but how he went about winning.
The driver of the Ally Chevy continually strives to do it right, and that’s what he hopes he will leave behind when he steps away after the 2020 campaign.
“Ultimately, it’s that respect,” Johnson said of his legacy. “Being one of the good guys out there on the track. When I think back at my 18 years so far, my mind goes to those memories and to the people that I shared those memories with, not standing, holding a trophy somewhere. It’s much more that headspace of being remembered than stats. It’s more that heartfelt thing than stats.”
Of course, Johnson was able to be “one of the good guys out there on the track” and still win – and win often.
For younger drivers like his Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron who grew up watching Johnson accomplishing previously unheard-of feats like winning five straight championships, he thought what he has done on the track is enough of a legacy in and of itself.
Then he began working alongside Johnson and found out everything that has gone into that success.
“He’s just the ultimate professional,” Byron said. “I kind of look at him like (New England Patriots quarterback) Tom Brady. Those guys are just kind of invincible when it comes to the way they go about their business and their profession, and I’ve learned that from him. I think that growing up as a kid, he was just the guy that was always winning races but doing it gracefully and even graceful in defeat, too.”
"He's just the ultimate professional."William Byron
Cliff Daniels, who became Johnson’s crew chief in July after years of serving as a race engineer on the No. 48 team, has seen first-hand the preparation the driver puts in each and every week.
He understands when Johnson mentions the importance of respect, because that’s exactly what the driver gives everyone on the team – and everyone on the track.
“On the track he races clean, he races respectful and races well at a very high level,” Daniels said. “There is so much to be said for that because we know many fierce competitors, athletes and drivers that may not always be the cleanest, most courteous, most respectable. And to do that and win so many races just speaks volumes. To me, Jimmie Jonson the man and the competitor both on and off the track is his legacy, what he lives out every day. That’s who he is and I’m thankful just to be a part of it.”
As a four-time champion, NASCAR Hall of Famer and icon of the sport, Johnson’s former teammate Jeff Gordon knows a thing or two about legacies.
Gordon was already a three-time champion by the time Johnson made his first Cup Series start in 2001 – and he would go on to win his fourth championship that same season.
Gordon explained that when he first came into the sport, there were drivers he looked up to and tried to emulate that forced him to step up his game in order to compete with them. It speaks volumes about Johnson’s talent and work ethic that it didn’t take long before the driver of the No. 48 was one of those competitors driving Gordon to better himself.
“I can tell you 100 percent Jimmie did that for me,” the Hall of Famer said. “I thought that I had things figured out and then Jimmie Johnson comes along and starts beating me on a regular basis and it forced me to look within myself and go, ‘OK, what am I not doing? What more can I do? What can I do with setups and cars, team, fitness?’ He elevated up my game. And I think that to me is when a driver’s performance on track leaves a legacy behind to other performers or athletes around the track.”
Johnson has a whole season left in 2020 to continue to add to that legacy, and the driver certainly has designs on going out on top.
If a record-setting eighth championship came to fruition in his final season, it wouldn’t come as a surprise to Hendrick, who perhaps put it best.
“People say, ‘Nobody’s perfect,’” the owner said. “But I’d say he’s as close to perfect as you can get a race car driver.”