De­spite changes, love of rac­ing will never change for Jim­mie John­son

The News & Observer - - Sports - BY BREN­DAN MARKS [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com Bren­dan Marks: 704-358-5889, @Bren­danRMarks

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 ca- reer. 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 moti- vates 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.”

STEVE HELBER AP

Jim­mie John­son, right, won’t have long-time crew chief Chad Knaus, left, to lean on this sea­son.

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