CONCORD, N.C. -- Jimmie Johnson will be racing in his final DAYTONA 500 as a full-time driver, but the reality of possibly never competing in “The Great American Race” again doesn’t seem to bother the veteran.
The 44-year-old is about to embark on his 19th season in the Cup Series, and Johnson reflected on how different this DAYTONA 500 is compared to his first in 2002, which saw him earn his first career pole.
“It's not the end of the year, so I'm very excited,” Johnson said. “All the emotions are just fun and excitement for myself, my family and team. But comparing to my first year I showed up here, not knowing if I was a Cup driver or could fit in here or was going to have a career in this sport. Insecurity was maxed. Not self-esteem, but self-confidence was low. I not only had to prove to the world, but I (was) still trying to prove to myself that I could do it at this level. (It’s a) much different head space.”
Naturally, Johnson would love to win his final DAYTONA 500, which would mark the beginning of a storied ending for the veteran driver. He said he can’t predict how he will feel at the end of the race, but he can envision his final laps around the track becoming more momentous.
“I think my mind is going to be blown come race day morning. This race is always full of celebrities and the pre-race ceremonies are just massive,” Johnson said. “Couple that with this could be my last (DAYTONA) 500 and the emotions that I’m sure will show up that day, I’m kind of excited for it.
“I want that feeling. I want (the) anxiety, nerves, all the stuff that comes with it. That’s kind of the thing I’ve chased my whole life in going racing. I’m sure when I get to later in the year those starts will be a little more emotional and I’ll probably reflect back on the season with more emotion. Right now, it’s just pure excitement. I’m just ready to go.“
Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott previously said he considers Johnson the “GOAT,” or “Greatest of All Time,” not because of his accomplishments behind the wheel, but how he treats others when he’s off the track.
Johnson said he's not trying to be a super mentor, but creating those relationships always have been important to him.
“It's just me,” Johnson said. “I value friendships, I value relationships. I'm proud of the ones that I have. It's just been me. Coming up through the ranks, one blessing I think I had is that I didn't have this crazy successful start to my career. I think I fell in love (and) stayed in love with this sport for the right reasons.
“That was the relationships that are built and the respect that I have for my peers and the people in the garage area. I got my first chance when I was 25 to really shine. You got guys now sitting (and) waiting to turn 18 to come in and have their shot - they're already shining. I just had a little different arc. That whole journey made me who I am today.”
However, Johnson couldn’t help but tease his fellow Hendrick Motorsports drivers that he should automatically be given the win out of all of them since it’s possibly his last time.
“I think my teammates should just follow me and push me to a DAYTONA 500 win,” Johnson joked. “Give the company (and) myself my third and final win (since) they have years to come. Hey guys, you have a lot of years to win your (DAYTONA) 500. Push me to the win!”