This, Jimmie Johnson admits, is more change than he has ever known.
Over his 18-year career, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion has been one of the sport’s pinnacles of consistency. Heck, you could argue he’s been the pinnacle of consistency. He has been with the same Hendrick Motorsports team, his same sponsor in Lowe’s, same color scheme, same crew chief — same everything.
So yeah, this offseason qualifies as different.
Starting in 2019, Johnson will have Ally Financial, rather than Lowe’s, as his chief sponsor. Kevin Meendering replaces longtime partner Chad Knaus as his crew chief. The sport will be introducing a rules package intended to create closer racing. And, naturally with everything else, a new paint scheme, too ... although not one indistinguishable to Johnson’s legions of loyal fans.
The new scheme, revealed Friday on Good Morning America, is primarily black and purple, compared to Johnson’s old blue and white staple. But the numbers, the same bright neon No. 48 that fans have come to love, aren’t going anywhere.
“(Ally) said, ‘We’ve done some research, we want to still carry through some of the history of the 48 car, are you open to neon numbers?’” Johnson told the Observer Friday morning. “And I thought, wow, that’s awfully considerate and makes a lot of sense. So that was an easy one to settle on. Like, ‘Yep, not a problem.’”
But while his old numbers might be a point of comfort and familiarity, there’s still more ‘newness’ in Johnson’s NASCAR world than ever.
Much of that, Johnson hopes, will be to his benefit. Despite all his historic success with both Lowe’s and Knaus, recent seasons haven’t been as kind. He called 2017, when he won three races but didn’t qualify for the Championship 4 at Homestead, the toughest year of his career. Then came 2018, when he didn’t win at all — the first time in Johnson’s career that had happened.
Naturally, that makes it easy to assume change will mean better fortune in 2019. But as he navigates all this ‘newness, ‘Johnson wants to be clear about one thing that certainly isn’t changing.
Not now. Not ever.
“When I look at last year and the struggles we had, sure there’s some obvious things to try to rectify and try to get redemption on,” Johnson said, “but I don’t want to over-emphasize that because it’s not what motivates me. Sure I want to get back to Victory Lane, sure I want to win another championship and all those other obvious things that are out there, but that’s not what keeps up at night and gets me excited.
“It’s really competing — the experience I have out there racing.”
And therein lies the most significant thing to know about Johnson, especially at this point in his career.
At 43 years old, there’s nothing else Johnson needs to add to his NASCAR legacy. He has won seven championships, tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most in the history of the sport, and five of those came consecutively. He’s in the top 10 all-time in wins, and has won every major race in the circuit. He’s one of the most marketable sports figures of this generation, up there with the Tom Bradys and LeBron James’ of the world.
So, when faced with so much adversity and change so late in his career, what still motivates Johnson to keep racing?
His love for it, plain and simple.
“When I was 4 years old and I started riding motorcycles, I just loved that experience, and that’s been the thing I’ve had to have in my life, you know, for my whole life,” Johnson told the Observer. “Honestly, I have nothing to prove. But I started racing that way before I was ever a champion in our sport, and it’s just me. It’s served me well. I’ve accomplished more than I could ever, ever have dreamed of, so why change anything?
“Plus, it wouldn’t be authentic. I just like to race.”
That’s part of the reason he spent time in the Middle East this offseason, learning to drive a Formula 1 car. It’s also why, just the other day, he hauled his own go-kart out to give it a couple of laps.
The man just loves what he does. He still loves it, same as he did as a young kid in California or a fresh-faced Cup rookie back in 2001.
And for anyone who takes the changing circumstances around Johnson as a sign that his NASCAR days are dwindling, think again. With recently retired friends (and former Hendrick teammates) Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnson has seen firsthand what it’s like for a legend to step away ... and it’s nothing he’s thinking about now.
“I’ve talked to my friends that have all retired, and there’s different moments (that lead to retiring) — If it’s not being competitive, the opportunity isn’t there, or if you’d had enough and it’s time to do something different. So there’s all those different variables floating around,” Johnson said. “In my world right now, I have full support from my family — we love what we do and everybody loves Dad racing — and I still love what I’m doing in the car, so it will be sort of a feel thing down the road when I decide (to retire).”
Just, ‘change’ isn’t going to bring about that feeling.
It also, however, isn’t going to especially inspire him.
In that sense, there’s not much change to Johnson at all. Circumstances around him, sure. But the man himself, the one who loves skiing in Colorado and playing with his daughters after school (his youngest, ironically, goes to school with the son of Ally’s CEO)? Not hardly.
“There is a lot of new this year for myself and the team, and that’s exciting, but at the same time, I need to step up,” Johnson said. “I’m just ready to get back in there and race.”