Less than a week after testing positive for COVID-19, Jimmie Johnson will return to the NASCAR Cup Series circuit on Sunday.
Prior to last Sunday’s Big Machine Hand Sanitizer Powered by Big Machine Records at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it had been nearly two calendar decades since Jimmie Johnson’s name didn’t show up on a NASCAR Cup Series scoring monitor.
The 2001 New Hampshire 300, the year’s season finale, was the race in question. It was a rare Friday afternoon excursion, rescheduled from its usual early fall spot after the tragic events of September 11. Of the 42 drivers who partook, four are still racing in the Cup Series full time and five had sons run in either the Cup or Xfinity Series events at IMS over the weekend. The circuit was still known as the “NASCAR Winston Cup Series” at the time. Among the sponsors adorning the machines…some of which were manufactured by Pontiac…were Kmart, Cingular Wireless, and Kodak.
Simply put, it had been a long, long time since Johnson didn’t run a race sanctioned by NASCAR premier series, 663 races to be precise. A positive test of COVID-19 brought upon his absence, revealed less than 48 hours before the green flag waved at Indianapolis.
Johnson took a different seat last Sunday, that of his couch from his home in Colorado. There, Johnson watched Xfinity Series regular Justin Allgaier pilot his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, the first time someone else took over the car since it hit the track for the first time in 2002. In that vehicle, Johnson has won seven Cup Series titles (tied for the most all-time with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt) and made countless racing memories. This season is set to be Johnson’s final year of full-time racing, one that has already been interrupted by the virus’ initial outbreak. His diagnosis prevented him from a final victory lap at IMS, where he had won four times (most among NASCAR drivers other than Jeff Gordon).
Sunday wasn’t the hardest part, though. According to Johnson, the toughest stretch was the hours that preceded it.
“It was just such a weird set of events,” Johnson recalled in a Friday morning conference call. “I would say that Saturday night trying to go to sleep was probably the most difficult time for me, knowing that I wasn’t going to be in the car. Sunday morning was still pretty tough, but I felt like Saturday night was probably the peak of the emotions that go with missing a race and the consecutive start streak coming to an end. Not being in the car, my final year, all the things that you would naturally think of, Saturday night was the peak.”
Johnson wouldn’t be at the hallowed racing ground of Indianapolis. But once he partook in the No. 48 team’s weekly prerace meeting, he knew things were going to work out.
He admitted that Sunday morning “wasn’t great”, but things drastically improved upon hearing the voices of his crew and encouraging them for the 400-mile test ahead. The only special advice he had for Allgaier was to “just to drive the wheels off of” the famed No. 48 machine.
“I was able to just hear the voices of my crew guys, pump them up, and just be involved in that team moment,” he recalled. “It’s crazy how it just relaxed me because I was convinced that I wasn’t going to watch the race. I was like I can’t do it. But having that moment to talk to (crew chief Cliff Daniels), all the guys, Justin was clearly on the call and to hear the words he had to say to the team, it let a lot of that go and I actually watched the race.”
The No. 48 didn’t last long on Sunday. Allgaier had to start from the back of the field and made up 11 positions by the time a competition caution came out on lap 14 of 160, but he got involved in a pit road pile-up that took out several competitors. A lost tire damaged the car beyond repair and relegated Allgaier to a 37th-place finish. Fortunately for Johnson, a good majority of his competition on the NASCAR playoff bubble likewise struggled on Sunday, leaving him a healthy 46 points ahead of the 17th-place cutoff in the standings.
Two negative tests and a physician’s approval later, Johnson will return to the track for Sunday’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET, FS1). Johnson has drawn the 20th spot in the starting lineup for the 267-lap event. Kentucky is one of four venues on the circuit that has yet to host Johnson in victory lane. His 83 victories are most among active drivers and tied for fifth all-time with Cale Yarborough. The most recent of those victories, however, came back in June 2017 at Dover, 110 races ago. It’s by far the longest drought of his career.
Even if Johnson is forced to leave Sparta without a victory, the track holds a special, nostalgic place in his heart. The track hosted some of his early HMS tests prior to his Cup Series debut. Results, however, have been hard to come by. He has finished 30th or worse in three of his last four Kentucky visits and crashed in his lone Xfinity trek in 2001 (when it was known as the Busch Series). A trophy on Sunday would not only clinch a playoff berth but also help his career come full circle…and provide a storybook ending to what’s been one of the most challenging weeks of Johnson’s life.
“I have positive vibes from (the Hendrick tests), but my racing experiences there from the Busch Series days and even in the Cup car has just been demanding and tough,” Johnson said. “I hope to conquer the track from that personal standpoint. And then clearly what I’ve been through, what my friends and family have been through, what my fan base has been through in the last week, it would be nice to leave there with a trophy.”
A sense of family helped Johnson get through the process of recovery. Earlier this week, Johnson was one of several drivers who stood in defense of Bubba Wallace when U.S. President Donald Trump falsely accused the circuit’s only African-American driver of passing a noose found in his garage stall at Talladega Superspeedway last month off as a hoax. Johnson confirmed a post marked with the tag “#IStandWithBubba” and an image of the stylized No. 43 seen on Wallace’s Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet.
Even more concerning to Johnson than the status of his No. 48 was how his family was coping with the diagnosis. Johnson confirmed he never experienced any COVID-19 symptoms but was tested after his wife Chandra experienced what she thought was seasonal allergies (Chandra has likewise been asymptomatic otherwise). Fortunately, neither of the couple’s daughters, Genevieve and Lydia, were said to be ill. The pair gave the command to start engines prior to the Pocono 350 two weekends ago and Johnson revealed on Twitter that Genevieve, nicknamed Evie, turned 10 on Tuesday.
“The kids are in a good place with it all, I think as good as they can be for their ages,” Johnson said. “But it is tough, they quickly forget how diligent they need to be. I guess ultimately, I know this is a point in time that their little minds will never forget what their parents went through.”
Even with all the delays and the potential of one last ride at Indianapolis delayed at the very least, Johnson has shown no signs of straying away from that path of a final full-time season. But he truly believes that his last season can be one of growth, learning, and understanding thanks to what he’s experienced in this process and the changing landscape across NASCAR.
Though the situation may appear dire at times, Johnson’s refusing to let these current affairs take his sense of positivity.
“It’s been an interesting year and at times wonder why it’s happened in my final full-time season in Cup. (But) when you turn on the news and look around and see how many people are really ill from this, the seriousness and the severity of the pandemic, it quickly fades out of my mind,” Johnson said. “This is a big problem, it’s a pandemic. So, I’ve really kept my emotions in check. I’m just trying to figure out how to keep my family safe and how I can ultimately learn from everything that’s going on.”
“We’ve dealt with a lot in the last four months as a nation and a world, so (we’re) trying to learn and grow, trying to teach and educate my children. Try to lead by example. I’ve been able to learn that my challenges are watched closely by my kids and how I deal with that adversity is ultimately teaching them. And with having a tough couple of years professionally and then now it’s ramped up to this level. Again, I just try to find the right spin on it. It’s easy to get into a dark headspace on all this. My wife and I are trying so hard to not let that happen and try to teach our children the best that we can.”
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags