CONCORD, N.C. -- Many times in an elite athlete’s career, there will be full-circle moment when he or she go from being coached to becoming the sounding post on how to be successful. Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson has experienced that transcendence after 19 seasons in the highest level of stock car racing.
The 45-year-old driver appeared on “The Sports Mentoring Project” podcast to discuss how his experiences as a young driver starting out in the Cup Series eventually led him to becoming to helping other young drivers trying to accomplish the same dream.
“Mentorship means many things, but it has been a big part of my life,” Johnson said. “I’ve had many mentors, so I’m thankful for them. … Now that I’m old enough, I’m actually able to mentor a few below me, so it’s a big word and has a lot of great meaning behind it for me.”
Johnson said he wasn’t as much talented as he was hard working. He credited his work ethic, along with his parents and the team owners, such as Rick Hendrick, for putting their faith in him to be successful. In his mentorship “hall of fame,” he placed Hendrick, former crew chief Chad Knaus, Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet and the Herzog family for pushing him to where he is today.
“Their wisdom. Their experience," Johnson said of his mentors' best attributes. "There were times I heard things that I really didn’t want to hear, and many times it was, ‘Be patient. It will come. It will happen.’ I was like, ‘There’s no way! I can’t be patient. This is my life; my career!’ That elevated view that experience brings is very, very helpful.”
The patience did pay off for Johnson. He was signed to Hendrick Motorsports in late 2000 and tasked to drive a brand-new fourth car in their stable starting in 2002. Three years after his first full season with the organization, Johnson brought home his first Cup Series championship in 2005.
However, that all started with Johnson asking Jeff Gordon for advice at Michigan International Speedway in 2000. Johnson explained his prospects were drying up to stay with Chevrolet and he knew Gordon had faced a similar situation before. He explained his case and felt slightly downtrodden when Gordon didn’t have much advice to offer.
“As I thanked him and went to leave his transporter, he then said, ‘Well, hold up, hold up. This is really a long shot, but we’re considering starting a fourth car at Hendrick Motorsports in 2002 and your name is the only name that’s come up for that seat.’” Johnson said. “Within two or three weeks, we had a letter of intent signed, and things move really, really quickly. So that, you know, that was a moment in time where Jeff really transitioned to being like a serious mentor for me.”
Nineteen years and a record-tying seven Cup championships later, Johnson has gone from being mentored to becoming the mentor. In his last three years with Hendrick Motorsports, he was the veteran presence among Chase Elliott, William Byron and Alex Bowman. Johnson said he has an “open-door policy” with all young drivers and especially has enjoyed watching Elliott grow from a small child visiting his dad, NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, at the track into a Cup Series champion himself.
“I've known him for so many years, that I feel like there's there was always a great deal of respect that I had for his family and his father and his father had for me," Johnson said. "And then that just kind of worked its way into the way Chase looked up to me. And I knew I was one of the guys that he wanted to emulate; he was around a lot. We had him signed at Hendrick at a very young age. And he was always around just curious and trying to learn.”
Now Johnson has embarked on racing in the IndyCar and Endurance Cup series, explaining that his brain is wired to want to try new and challenging things. Behind each endeavor is his wife, Chandra, who has been present for the championships and career changes. While Johnson credited Gordon in guiding him how to keep a work-home life balanced, he added Chandra and their two daughters’ support has always been constant.
“(Chandra) wants me to be me and push for the things that I'm passionate about,” Johnson said. “I can say now that the NASCAR season has started, I've been on vacation with my family a few times where I've been in horse shows with my daughters, which is their passion. There's been some lifting experiences that just feel right. And it's something that they deserve.”