‘I’m far from done’

7-time Cup champ mo­ti­vated by calls for his re­tire­ment

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Sports - By Jenna Fryer

CHAR­LOTTE, N.C. — Jim­mie John­son, one of the most po­lite and pro­fes­sional ath­letes in sports, rarely gets rat­tled.

Un­less he is be­ing trolled on so­cial me­dia, that is.

John­son’s pa­tience was very much tested last sea­son, the worst of his NASCAR ca­reer. He could han­dle the los­ing, the in­ter­nal strug­gles at Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports and the fi­nal races with long­time crew chief Chad Knaus.

It was the strangers who sug­gested his best days are over that got un­der John­son’s skin and forced him to clap back on Twit­ter. His re­sponses were some­times hu­mor­ous if out of char­ac­ter for John­son, un­til he stum­bled upon a post that called him a “has-been” and told him to re­tire.

“I’m far from done JA,” John­son wrote in a re­buke last Oc­to­ber.

The re­tort is now his mantra as John­son heads into the 2019 sea­son de­ter­mined to prove he is still ca­pa­ble of win­ning a record eighth Cup cham­pi­onship. He had shirts printed and dis­trib­uted to friends, and five-time IndyCar cham­pion Scott Dixon re­cently hon­ored his NASCAR con­tem­po­rary with a video of him ex­er­cis­ing in a “I’m not done yet JA” shirt.

John­son’s seven cham­pi­onships tie him with Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earn­hardt for most in NASCAR, and with 83 ca­reer vic­to­ries he is just two wins shy of sole pos­ses­sion of fourth place on the all-time list. He has noth­ing to prove to any­one, but his ag­gra­va­tion is real at the sug­ges­tion he should hang it up.

“I get to say when I’m done,” John­son said. “It did weigh on me and I can’t wait to win, and win of­ten. I think that would be some­thing re­ally nice to say to all those peo­ple that sug­gested I was washed up and done.”

John­son be­gins his 18th sea­son next week at Day­tona In­ter­na­tional Speed­way, where he will lead a new-look No. 48 team. Lowe’s had spon­sored his car since his 2002 rookie year but left NASCAR at the end of last sea­son. Ally Fi­nan­cial Inc. is his new spon­sor, and its paint scheme and color palette are the first sig­nif­i­cant changes to the No. 48 Chevro­let since the team launched with John­son.

There’s been a change at the top too as team owner Rick Hen­drick split up John­son and Knaus. It was Knaus who built the team from scratch, back in 2002, and he and John­son had been to­gether from the start.

Al­though suc­cess­ful, the duo had their dis­agree­ments and Hen­drick on at least one oc­ca­sion threat­ened to sep­a­rate them. They won their sev­enth ti­tle to­gether, in 2016 but the need for a change emerged the very next sea­son when John­son won three races but never truly con­tended for the ti­tle.

Hen­drick Mo­tor­sports was in a deep re­build and all four of its teams suf­fered last year, but the strug­gles were most glar­ing for John­son. It was his first win­less Cup sea­son and he fin­ished a ca­reer-low 14th in the fi­nal stand­ings. Hen­drick had made a mid­sea­son de­ci­sion to move Knaus in 2019 to driver Wil­liam By­ron while Kevin Men­deer­ing, an Xfin­ity Se­ries crew chief, was pro­moted to one of the big­gest jobs in rac­ing.

Hen­drick be­lieves the change was over­due.

“It’s no dif­fer­ent than an NFL team when you’ve got a re­ally good coach and a re­ally good quar­ter­back and a re­ally good team, but for some rea­son it is tired and you need a spark,” Hen­drick said. “You just can’t keep go­ing back again and again and again try­ing to hold it to­gether.

“Chad needed a new chal­lenge and so did Jim­mie. The com­bi­na­tion, they both had tremen­dous de­sire, but it just needed some­thing fresh. Jim­mie has now got a guy who is very tech­ni­cal, but Jim­mie is a cham­pion and he wants to lead the team now.”

Men­deer­ing re­turns to the Hen­drick shop af­ter three sea­sons as a crew chief at JR Mo­tor­sports, the af­fil­i­ated Xfin­ity pro­gram where HMS crew mem­bers and en­gi­neers pre­pare for the big leagues. His first Cup crew chief job puts Men­deer­ing in charge of help­ing John­son win that elu­sive eighth ti­tle.

“I’m ready,” Men­deer­ing said. “The more pre­pared you are, the more work you put in, the less pres­sure there is be­cause you are ready for ev­ery sit­u­a­tion.

“Jim­mie wants to win at ev­ery­thing he does and I think he has been re­ju­ve­nated. He is go­ing to do what­ever it takes and he is go­ing to push him­self past the limit. He will be back in vic­tory lane this year.”

John­son got a kick out of Dixon, the top IndyCar driver of his era, wear­ing that shirt last month. The two have be­come friendly over the years and Dixon un­der­stands why John­son gets so an­gry at his crit­ics.

“It’s an im­por­tant part of rac­ing,” Dixon said. “You’re al­ways go­ing to have peo­ple that love some­one, hate some­body else, and most of the time the guy who’s suc­cess­ful gets hated on a lot. That’s not fun to see the same guy win all the time. Jim­mie’s done a very good job of that.

“With Jim­mie, I don’t think he needs that mo­ti­va­tor, but it’s also im­por­tant to use it and turn it into a pos­i­tive to help your­self, which I think he’s very good at. He wants to punch some­one out!”

NICK WASS/AP

Jim­mie John­son’s pa­tience was tested dur­ing the worst sea­son of his NASCAR ca­reer by crit­i­cism sent his way via so­cial me­dia.

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