Jimmie Johnson has witnessed the arrival of diversity in NASCAR during the course of his two decades on the Cup tour.
As the sport has worked on becoming more inclusive, from Danica Patrick joining the sport’s top division full-time to Juan Pablo Montoya, Daniel Suarez and Bubba Wallace coming aboard, the once all-white male roster looks quite different from the way it did from when Johnson’s first rookie season in 2002.
But the seven-time champion believes there’s more that can be done both on the track and off. In the wake of the George Floyd tragedy in Minneapolis, Johnson organized the drivers’ effort to acknowledge the social injustice that still exists in the U.S. Following the Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha, Wis., on Sunday, there has been further discussion of a response in the NASCAR ranks.
On Wednesday, the NBA boycotted three playoff games in support of the Black Lives Movement—and cause also supported by Wallace. The WNBA followed suit and the MLB postponed three games as well.
Throughout the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, fans have relied on sports as an escape from an otherwise chaotic 2020. Although some fans would just prefer to have athletes play the games and not express opinions surrounding current events, Johnson, who turns 45 next month, isn't afraid to use his celebrity status to bring light to the social inequities across the land.
“Yeah, these are changing times and I know many don’t want to see the opinions of the athletes, and they want the sport to be the sport and the athletes just to be quiet,” Johnson said. “But I think there’s been so much going on over a long, long period of time and various topics, as well, that we have an opinion – athletes have an opinion and we have a right to share our opinion.
“I think with age, I’ve become more comfortable to share my opinion. And then as I learn more about various issues, my own emotions come into play and I’m led to having different conversations or use my platforms in a different way - to focus our foundation and some of the work it does in a different direction. We all have our own journey with it all and I think we all definitely have that right and should not be judged to have that right. It’s just changing times – a big election year, a lot of different opinions, and in my opinion, a country more divided than I’ve ever seen or experienced in my lifetime.”
With two young daughters at home, Johnson is witnessing first-hand the effect that current times are having on children. That’s why Johnson refuses to be complacent.
“It’s an important time in everyone’s life right now and I feel like the younger generation is watching and learning. And I’m very encouraged by watching my kids and the way our school is teaching them to learn, to have an opinion, to really educate themselves on various topics. At times, I’m discouraged by where we sit as a nation, as a world and just how divided we all are.
“But then when I see my kids, their questions and their genuine concern about the future of our country, of our environment, of racial inequality issues, gender-related issues – I do become encouraged. To hear a 10-year old and a 6-year old weigh in on some conversations really has blown my mind. So, I do have some optimism for the future. Clearly, it’s a critical point in time right now for us all. It’s a big topic and a journey that’s not going to resolve anytime soon for generations to come.”
This weekend, Johnson’s main goal is coming out of Daytona International Speedway with a win—or at least securing a position in what will likely be the final Playoffs of his NASCAR career. Johnson announced last November that he would retire from full-time competition at the end of this year. He’s currently ranked 17th in the Playoff standings—one position outside of the grid.
“Of course we want all four cars in the Playoffs and to go through the rounds in the Playoffs,” Johnson said. “So, that would be the sweet thing. For me, I feel like I’m racing more for my team. On top of that and an extension of that would be for the fans. I know where I am in my heart and I know that I’m still very, very competitive, can get the job done, win races and be a threat for the championship. There’s just more variables to the reality of that than I think even I realized.
“I’ve had it so good with all those variables in place and was able to win five championships in a row, win all those races and seven championships in total. But I’m a better driver today than I was then and I firmly believe that. Watching my team develop, grow and end up where we are today led by Cliff Daniels (crew chief), it’s been a tough three years—there’s no way around it.”
Still, Johnson hasn’t won a race since the 13th race of 2017 season in Dover. Even if he does advance to the Playoffs, given the strength of Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin right now, vying for that eighth championship would be a tough task.
Johnson believes the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team is up for the challenge.
“We are coming and this team is on track,” Johnson said. “I do feel like we can get that base hit and I do feel that we can go rounds. And I do feel like we can get hot and be a championship threat. That will mean a lot to me, but for my team – they’re my motivation right now. Watching these guys give everything that they have week in and week out and they really are my motivation right now to go in addition to my competitive nature and what I want to accomplish.
“We’ll see how it all plays out. It could be a storybook ending for us, which would be amazing and I know the fans would really appreciate that and enjoy it. But all I can do is give 100 percent – that’s something that I’ve learned over these last three years that our performance on Sunday is more than just my will, my desire and how good I want to do. It’s really more of a team sport than I’ve ever imagined.”