Just months after failing to qualify for the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs for the first time in his career and days after the end of the 2019 season, seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson announced on Wednesday that next year will be his last as a full-time Cup Series driver.
Even without another title in 2020, Johnson will retire tied with both Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. for the most Cup Series championships all-time—names his legacy fits right in with.
“I’m looking forward to next season, and celebrating what will be my last year as a full-time NASCAR Cup driver,” Johnson announced in a video posted to his Twitter account.
Johnson, 44, began his racing career in motorcycles and off-road trucks, and the latter involved a 1994 crash that led him, via Newsweek, to change his philosophy from “young and dumb hot shoe to a thinking man’s racer.” That approach has been obvious throughout his seven titles.
Johnson decided to go on road in 1998, according to his website biography, and ran in the second-tier NASCAR Xfinity Series for a few years before signing with Hendrick Motorsports in September of 2000 and running three Cup Series races for the team in 2001. He’s been full time in the series since 2002, and has been with Hendrick Motorsports from the beginning.
The Era of Jimmie Johnson started not long after he went full time in NASCAR’s top series, with Johnson winning five Cup Series championships in a row from 2006 through 2010. His next title came in 2013, and the most recent in 2016.
(It should be noted that these titles are different; for the first six, the Cup Series title was decided with a 10-race “Chase” for the championship. Points were reset for the top 10-or-12-ish drivers in the standings, and those drivers then raced for the title in the final 10 races, highest points finisher wins. From 2014 onward, there’s been a rather flawed knockout format renamed the “playoffs.” Johnson has only won the title once under those rules, with the playoffs becoming the era of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr.)
Johnson, thus, has easily been one of the most dominant drivers of the past two decades. His retirement is another one that feels like the end of an era, like with his former Hendrick teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon.
But a retirement from full-time Cup Series competition has seemed like it would come sometime soon for some time now. Johnson’s performance has dropped as of late, with this year being the first time in his career that he’s missed out on the postseason. Before this year, he was the last driver left to have qualified for every single postseason since NASCAR began the practice in 2004.
He’s also at the typical age of Cup Series retirement—Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon both left around the same age—and he lost career sponsor Lowe’s for the 2019 season. It was announced that the 17-year pairing of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus would end after the 2018 season, with Knaus moving over to young Hendrick driver William Byron’s car. The two were a dynasty together, and that split on its own was the end of an era. Johnson is the last of the old Hendrick Motorsports driver stable left, with his new teammates aged 26, 21 and 23.
But 2020 will be Johnson’s last season as the older driver in the group, at least full time. Johnson didn’t say in the announcement whether he’d race in limited capacities after 2020, like Earnhardt Jr. still does, but said that he showed up in NASCAR “chasing a dream, and achieved more than [he] ever thought possible.”
If anything, that’s an understatement.