Jimmie Johnson doesn’t feel pressure.
Not anymore at least.
There was a time when it weighed down on his shoulders and occupied his thoughts. But now, Johnson says, he’s “playing with house money.”
Johnson has won seven NASCAR Cup Series championships, tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. for most all time. He’s raced for 17 years and won 83 races. At 41, Johnson doesn’t have much left to accomplish. But what he does have left is the big one: the eighth championship that would change his status from “tied for most,” to just plain first.
That sure seems like a lot of pressure. And maybe it would be to most people. But to Johnson, nothing can compare to the agonizing stress he felt chasing his first championship.
In 2004 and 2005 he was a contender, losing by a small margin to Kurt Busch in ’04, and finishing fifth in ’05.
“I was more than upset after those two. I was distraught,” he said. “As a professional athlete it is so hard to win a championship, and I wasn’t sure I would get another chance.”
In 2006 he won his first championship, and the pressure disappeared. Then he won another, and another, and another until he won five championships in a row, and then added two more in the next six years.
In the last 11 years, Johnson has been nothing short of dominant, but at 41 he sees things a little differently than he did at 30. At this point in his career, Johnson is just as concerned with being a mentor as he is with winning his eighth championship.
His goal now is to take guys like Chase Elliott,and William Byron, who was just tabbed to drive Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 Chevy in 2018, under his wing.
When he was an up-and-comer in the sport, Johnson turned to Jeff Gordon, and advice he got was instrumental to his success. Now, he wants to pass on that wisdom.
Being a young driver is tough, on and off the track, Johnson said. Not only are they adjusting to new responsibilities with owners and sponsors, but major life changes are taking place at the same time.
Balancing the two worlds is full of complications. Johnson and his wife Chandra have two little girls, Genevieve and Lydia, ages four and seven. They aren’t big fans of racing, he says, but they are big fans of their dad, so the Johnson family spends plenty of time at the track. One of the hardest things for Johnson is missing out on the regular week cycle that most families get. While other people are enjoying leisurely Sundays, Johnson is in the midst of his busiest day of the week. But NASCAR has given more than it has taken, which is why Johnson has stuck with the sport for so long.
While young NASCAR drivers are gearing up for the years and races in front of them, Johnson is much closer to wrapping up his career.
“I can’t pretend I know where these guys are in their life arc because we are all at different places,” Johnson said. “But I know I had a lot of questions when I was younger. I try to build a friendship as a foundation so when those questions come they are comfortable asking.”
When he started out he thought he was patient; he wasn’t. He thought he understood the importance of the people around him and the relationships he was forging; he didn’t. He thought he had mastered the art of being patient; he hadn’t. But as he grew on and off the track, those things fell into place, and so did his driving.
That’s part of the reason why Johnson’s quest for eight championships doesn’t come with pressure attached. He wants to win it, of course, but he’s confident that in the next three years, he will.
As Johnson has changed over the years, so has NASCAR. With the current championship format Johnson says he has no way of knowing what his chances are. No matter what, it comes down to the last turn of the wheel.
“I didn’t know last year until the last lap that I would be the champion,” he said. “But I do know that the remaining tracks [this year] have always been good to me.”
Currently, Johnson sits third in the Monster Energy Cup standings behind Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson. Johnson has three victories this season. His next step in the journey to championship number eight is Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway.