When the green flag waves at the 62nd Annual Daytona 500 Sunday, it’s going to be the beginning of the end for Jimmie Johnson.
For Johnson, who has taken home two Daytona 500 trophies in his storied career, the first race of the season, which begins at 2:30 p.m. ET, will mark the start of his farewell tour.
In 2001 when Johnson first sat in the No. 48 car for Hendrick Motorsports, there really was no way to know he would turn the next near-two decades into a historical career. Back then, he finished 25th, 29th, and 39th in his three NASCAR starts.
The very next season, it was clear Johnson was meant for NASCAR. He started the year off by earning the pole position for the Daytona 500 before earning his first Cup Series win of his career. He added two more wins, six top-five and 21 top-10 finishes that season to finish fifth in the final standings. Since then, it’s been an incredible ride. Johnson has collected 83 career wins, tying him with Cale Yarborough for sixth all-time and the leader among all active drivers. One more win will move him up into a tie with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip (84 wins), and it would take an unlikely 10 victories for him to climb up into third place with former Hendricks Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon (93 wins).
Single victories aren’t everything, especially in NASCAR. Johnson’s legend has been built on his seven Cup Series Championships, which ties him for first with racing gods Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty. Johnson also holds the record as the only driver to win five consecutive titles spanning from the 2006 season to 2010.
No doubt the 44-year-old Johnson will be looking to add to those career totals before he steps away from full-time racing. In order for that to happen, Johnson has to overcome the challenges that have kept him from earning a win over the past 95 races. He hasn’t hoisted a trophy since 2017 when he picked up three wins and finished 10th overall.
In an interview with ESPN’s Ryan McGee, Johnson said his team is aware of the issues that have kept him and his No. 48 Chevrolet out of the winner’s circle.
”When you’re winning all the time, and we did for a long time, there’s certainly a piece of you that thinks it will never stop, but then it does,” Johnson said. “And there are a lot of reasons that happened. We are close to fixing those issues. That was a big factor in my decision to do this one more year.”
While Johnson admits he’s looking forward to the experience of ending his full-time racing career, he told ESPN that getting behind the wheel of his car will be his way of escaping the celebrations and the tributes that will no doubt follow him to each track.
”But if I am being honest, I truly have no idea how it is going to feel when it’s, say, maybe my last Daytona 500, this Sunday,” Johnson said. “Or my last race at this place or that place. Or, if we think it might be my last trip to a certain place, and there I am fighting for a win there in the closing laps, what is that going to be like?”
Based on his illustrious career, it’s no doubt going to be entertaining, exciting and, hopefully, elating.