On Wednesday, Jimmie Johnson announced that the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season would be his last. While that move could be shocking, it’s not all that surprising. See, Johnson is arguably past his expiration date in NASCAR. While he still is an average driver, he’s not above average like he once was.
That’s not a slight at Johnson, that’s more of a testament on how great he once was. No one has more championships than Johnson (7). He’s tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most all-time.
His 83 wins rank sixth most. Only Richard Petty (200), David Pearson (105), Jeff Gordon (93), Darrell Waltrip (84) and Cale Yarborough (84) have more. If Johnson can steal two more wins in 2020, his 19th and final farewell season, he’d move into fourth ever.
His 47 wins from 2002-2009 made him the winningest driver of the decade. Then, his 36 wins from 2010-2019 allowed him to be the third-winningest driver of the past decade. He won on 20 of 25 Cup Series tracks where he has raced. His 28 career Cup Series wins on 1.5-mile tracks are most all-time.
Furthermore, Johnson has scored two or more Cup Series wins at 17 different racetracks. He’s been his best in the Cup Series “Crown Jewels.” Johnson, has won the DAYTONA 500 (2006, 2013), Charlotte 600 (2003, 2004, 2005, 2014), Brickyard 400 (2006, 2008, 2009, 2012) and Southern 500 (2004, 2012) multiple times. His win at Darlington in 2012 was Hendrick Motorsports’ 200th race win.
He’s also one of only three drivers with 11 or more wins at a single track (Dover), joining NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip.
Johnson, leads all drivers in wins at Dover (11), Charlotte oval (8), Texas (7), Auto Club (6), Las Vegas (4) and Kansas (3; tie).
He’s the only driver to win five consecutive Cup Series championships (2006-2010). He has made 648 consecutive starts; tied for sixth-most all-time. His 16 consecutive seasons with a win (2002-2017) is tied for third-longest all-time. He has a Cup Series record 15 playoff appearances, all consecutive (2004-2018)
That is a career that should be celebrated. The problem is, his stats have declined year over year. Those past great stats were all done from 2002 through 2016. I’d rather remember Johnson for the dynasties and dominance than just another driver in the field. That’s why it’s good for him to get out while he is.
I’d hate to see Johnson become one of those athletes that overstay their welcome. Michael Jordan hung around the NBA too long. Peyton Manning, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, etc hung around the NFL past their primes. Heck, even my Indianapolis Colts have Adam Vinatieri back in 2019 with him showing so far this season that last year should have been his last.
Johnson, is in that territory but not quite like them yet. He was as competitive at the end of the 2019 season as he was since his championship winning one in 2016. Ever since the crew chief change from Kevin Meendering to Cliff Daniels, the No. 48 team took off. The problem was, it took a few races for Johnson and Daniels to click and by time that they did, it was playoff time.
That led 2019 to being the first time of Johnson’s NASCAR career that he failed to make the playoffs. That comes while his other three teammates were part of the postseason. So, in terms of equipment and resources, his teammates got it all while Johnson was kind of an after thought over the final 10 week stretch of the year. Even in being in that role, he was consistently fast though.
I want to see what Johnson and Daniels can accomplish on a full season together in 2020. I have confidence that Johnson’s near three year winless drought can finally come to an end. He can compete for race wins again which is why I’m glad to see him walk away like that than like he was in 2017 and 2018.
Over the past three seasons, Johnson has a combined nine top five finishes. He had 11 or more top five finishes in every single season before other than his rookie campaign. In terms of top 10’s, Johnson had 20 or more in every year from his rookie season in 2002 though 2015. In 2016, he had 16. In 2017 and 2018, he had 11 each year. Last season, he scored 12.
Also, from 2007 through 2014, he had at least 1,100 laps lead in every season. Since then? 558, 737, 217, 40 and 131 respectively.
I want to remember Johnson for running up front and stats show he hasn’t been able to do that over the last several years.
While I expect an uptick in all of these numbers in 2020, moral of the story is, they’re likely not a championship winning team anymore. Go out while you can at least still be competitive.