Tom Brady has almost everyone beat in the new century in terms of titles. Jimmie Johnson, true to form, is the exception.
When Johnson retires from full-time racing after the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season, a record seven championships will go with him. That haul is a number matched by two legends of the sport: Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty.
“I’m so thankful for 18 incredible years of racing in NASCAR,” Johnson said on NASCAR.com of a career that began in 2002. “The sport has been good to me. It has allowed me to do something I truly love. I showed up chasing a dream and achieved more than I ever thought possible. I’m looking forward to next season and celebrating what will be my last year as a full-time NASCAR Cup driver. I know what this team is capable of, and I hope 2020 is one of the best yet.”
When a legend of their field retires, there are two immediate questions. Why? And is this the right time? For Johnson, that is certainly the case, and certainly the perfect chance and opportunity to step away.
The departure of Johnson is symbolically perfect, especially with the changes coming to NASCAR in the near future. His retirement leaves a single multi-champion on the active circuit in Kyle Busch, the man crowned in Sunday's season finale. With Johnson gone, only two other active full-time drivers (Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman) would've run at least one race alongside the late Earnhardt.
NASCAR will roll out a new car for all teams to use in 2021, the year after Johnson loosens his seat belt for the final time, ending an era dominated by Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet. This new era will debut with races that more than likely won't feature drivers like Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., the drivers that guided the sports into its new century heyday.
This can be the true changing of the guard NASCAR is looking for, making Johnson's exit beneficial for both himself and the sport as a whole. There's nothing wrong with nostalgia, wishing your favorite driver was back in their car. But NASCAR is moving on to a new generation, and it can officially time for names like Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Chase Elliott, and other young names to take over and become household names.
Johnson's exit is also perfect for Johnson on a personal level. Athletes of all varieties often stay long after their time is up. In NASCAR, for example, a whole generation of fans know Bobby and Terry Labonte as a pair of "start-and-park" drivers, filling out the latter stages of their respective careers in low-budget rides that often occupied the lower portions of final ledgers. There were three championships in between them, butt after 2007, they combined for only 11 Top-10 finishes. Johnson, who remained relatively competitive despite missing the NASCAR playoffs for the first time in his career (his 12 Top-10 finishes were his most since 2016), is allowing himself to walk away on his own terms. He'll perhaps make a cameo at a Daytona 500 or two, but it's good he's stepping away while memories of his seven championships are still relatively fresh.
Johnson and his trusty No. 48 always knew to do things right. He always showed up when it was time for the postseason, whether it went by its "playoffs" or "Chase for the Cup" moniker. He set an example for all drivers to follow, with his dominance and smarts on the track and his personable demeanor off of it. Now, even in retirement, he's showcasing to the racing world how it's done, one more time.