From the Press Box: This generation’s NASCAR GOAT gears up for one last run

While Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt have been synonymously associated with NASCAR and its history, one of the more unsung greats of the sport is gearing up for his final ride in 2020.

Hendrick Motorsports driver of the No. 48 car Jimmie Johnson has racked up seven championships, tied with Petty and Earnhardt, in his 18 years.

Johnson has 83 career wins, but will be looking to end a winless streak that has lasted two full seasons causing him to miss the NASCAR playoffs last season for the first time in his career.

He announced his retirement in November with the initial social media trend “#Chasing8,” but decided to change it to “#OneFinalTime” ahead of Sunday’s Great American Race at Daytona.

“Since I made the [November retirement] announcement, it just kind of dawned on me -- the more I thought about it, I never chased anything,” Johnson told reporters at Wednesday’s media day. “One final time just felt like the correct thing to say, and now we’ve struck the chasing eight from everything and one final time just fits well.”

Johnson has long been one of the quieter drivers in NASCAR, as Hendricks Motor Sports owner Rick Hendrick said about him during Johnson’s retirement announcement.

““I think when you can do it and do it right and win like he did and set records that probably no one will ever break and nobody can say anything bad about Jimmie Johnson,” said Hendrick. “On the track, off the track; I mean I think sometimes people didn’t respect him because he was too perfect. You know, that he didn’t have that big edge. But, he could win and do it like that and be a gentleman and race people clean and has never had any problems.”

Whereas Petty and Earnhardt earned reputations for their aggressive style that struck fear into other drivers, Johnson annoyed other drivers by being “the good guy” and didn’t complain when the race didn’t go his way or another driver was more aggressive than him. 

Not to take anything way from those two legends, but Johnson’s humble and clean-cut demeanor as a driver even frustrated his former crew chief, Chad Knaus.

“He’s so frustrating to me. I tried to turn him into a dirty driver at times,” said Knaus, his crew chief of 17 years and still a close personal friend. “I tried to make him be more aggressive at times. I tried to do all this stuff, and shame on me for doing that because just like what Mr. Hendrick said, he’s going to leave this sport with everybody knowing that he did it the right way. He didn’t shove people around. He couldn’t crash somebody if he had to. He just doesn’t have the capability. It’s not in his DNA.”

Admittedly, Johnson was my favorite driver after his first year in the Cup Series when he won three races and continued to trend upwards. As he won championships throughout the rest of his career, as I have stressed in the article, his calm, cool yet competitive driving proved to be a large part of his character.

The saying may say, “nice guys finish last,” but as he has the rest of his career, I look forward to seeing Johnson turn that saying on its head one more time as he chases eight.

John Lee is the editor of The Pampa News and can be reached at pampanewseditor@gmail.com or find him on Twitter @jcl1987.

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