FONTANA, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 28: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet, speaks ahead of practice at Auto Club Speedway on February 28, 2020 in Fontana, California.
(Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Jimmie Johnson is staying positive, with assistance from an iRacing venture, despite the uncertainty surrounding the 2020 NASCAR season.

Geoff Magliocchetti

The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series showcase was going to be a farewell to a seven-time champion. It was set to be one final salute to a motorsports legend, 36 victory laps no matter where he placed.

But, like many of the paths to his 83 career Cup victories, adjustments may be on the way. Alas, these obstacles can’t be cleared with a simple pit stop.

Jimmie Johnson announced in November that the 2020 circuit would be his last as a full-time driver. The timing seemed perfect…a legend was walking away before career midnight struck. Two full years without a win seemed to spell twilight. A NASCAR playoff session sans Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet…the first since the system’s inception in 2004…made a decade-opening exit seemed perfect.

Things truly began to feel real during the March 1 visit to Auto Club Speedway. The Fontana-based track is a comfortable California drive, just over 100 minutes, away from Johnson’s hometown of El Cajon. It was where Johnson’s picked up his first Cup Series win and where, in 26 starts (the length of a full Cup Series regular season), Johnson completed literally every possible lap.

A fare thee well to Johnson commenced. His wife Chandra and daughters Genevieve and Lydia started things off by waving the green flag. Johnson’s happily ever after didn’t end with a win…though he did finish a respectable seventh…but his Hendrick Motorsports protégé Alex Bowman took the checkered flag.

(Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Much like how Johnson was greeted by his mentor, teammate, and car owner Jeff Gordon in victory lane 18 years prior, Johnson was there to congratulate Bowman, who led 110 of 200 laps en route to victory.

“I’ve been really impressed,” Johnson said earlier this week, going full mentor in a conference call hosted by NASCAR. “I’ve watched him evolve quite a bit over the years, especially since his responsibilities were just running the SIM for us, to now having a full-time seat in the car. He’s done a lot of growing and maturing and he’s done an amazing job.”

With NASCAR paused in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson’s resurgence has been put on hold. He currently sits in fifth-place, immediately behind his Hendrick teammates Bowman and Chase Elliott.

Johnson’s decision on whether he’ll return for a potentially more normal farewell is much the NASCAR season…on hold.

“I really don’t have any answer just yet because I don’t know what’s going to happen in the coming months and if we’ll be able to run the full season or not,” Johnson said. “I feel like I set out to make 2020 my last full-time year, but I’ve always left the door open for other racing and NASCAR and abroad for the future and I feel like I’m still pretty much on that path.

“I’m hopeful that we get our full year in and we can get that going here in a month or so or whatever the latest projected number possibly could be and I that can run the season in its entirety. I really don’t have an answer. It’s up in the air just as so much is in the world right now.”

NASCAR does plan to get the entirety of the remaining 32 races in. Drivers and crews alike wait, albeit with patience at a premium. Johnson himself admits there’s little they can do, with Hendrick Motorsports’ Concord, NC headquarters shut down. He’s also admitted that he has given little thought as to how a full schedule would operate. Unconventional routes like doubleheaders and weeknight races have been floated as potential solutions.

But Johnson has spent the hiatus adding even more titles to his resume…literal titles, so don’t head off to victory lane just yet.

Chandra continues to run SOCO Gallery, a contemporary art space and bookshop based in Charlotte. Johnson has thus taken on the role of teacher, homeschooling his daughters. He admitted the concept “rocked our world” in the early going, but fondly remarked that the family has “been able to balance things pretty well”.

Racing, however, is still playing a role in Johnson’s life. He was a last lap addition, but Johnson is one of several NASCAR superstars partaking in the iRacing Pro Invitational, which has moved the competition to a virtual, simulated setting. Drivers can still partake in exciting racing, while maintaining social distancing policies that will potentially allow the circuit to return to real asphalt.

Johnson isn’t as experienced as some of his racing brethren. Garrett Smithley, for example, told ESNY earlier this week that he’s been partaking in iRacing for over a decade. That inexperience was on display when he set off a big wreck during the Dixie Vodka 150 event at virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway.

But Johnson mentioned he’s getting better in a self-assessment. He told the media that he’s worked with the accessory apps to iRacing to better get a hang of the virtual events.

“Playing the game is certainly challenging on its own, but I had no idea the rest of it that went into it,” he said. “That’s really what rocked my world in week one, and even into week two. It was literally five or six days a week, four to five hours a day, just trying to figure it all out and get it set-up.”

Despite the ongoing process of adaptation, Johnson was drawn to the idea that iRacing could provide a relative sense of normalcy to the American sports fan. Races still air on Sundays and consumers have taken a liking with viewership hovering in the seven-digit range.

“It feels great. It’s nice to also have a purpose,” Johnson said. “To see the viewership numbers and understand how much fun the fans are having watching it, it has motivated me and has me highly interested to keep it going. As we look around and see other sports try to figure out how to virtually offer something for their fans, we were one of the first if not the first, to do it and do it well and break all kinds of records in the process. So, hats off to everybody to pull it through and our partners on the television-side to allow this to happen.”

So impressed has Johnson been by the pixelated excitement, he has also returned to the simulator for several IndyCar iRacing events.

Johnson also spoke about how participation helps him on a personal level. Routine has worked its way back into his life after a period where Johnson admitted he went “stir-crazy” when the delays first came.

But a common theme in Johnson’s quotes was his remorse toward the fans.

Local reporters from several parts of the country asked Johnson about the local connections and memories made at several tracks (i.e. Kansas Speedway and Pocono Raceway). The decisions regarding the remainder of his full-time career have yet to be made, but he seems to have made at least a bit of peace if this is truly the end.

He was, however, a bit upset that some fans may never see him drive the No. 48 Chevrolet in person again, though acknowledging that they each have bigger concerns in these trying times.

“I feel more for the fans that wanted to see me at their track and experience that and have it,” he said. “I know where I am and I’m very content and fulfilled with the career I’ve had. Sure, I want to be on track. Sure, I want to go to these places a final time. (But) I feel more for the fans that aren’t having that opportunity right now that I long for myself to experience it and to be there, if that makes any sense.”

“That’s only a small piece in the grand scheme of things when you look at all the individuals that are affected by the Coronavirus and the families that have been affected, and the economy, and businesses and business owners. This is way bigger than me and way bigger than what was going to be my final time at these tracks. So, that stuff hasn’t really even crossed my mind, honestly, is why I bring it up.”

Johnson is prepared to run races sans spectators, but only when the time is right. He offered the expansive NASCAR fanbase a message of hope in some of his final remarks.

“We’re all in this together. Let’s do our part. I think the sooner we can control the curve and push things down, the sooner we can find out whatever our new norm is.”

The eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitaional Series returns to action on April 19 at virtual Richmond International Raceway.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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