A few years back, right around this time of year, I was pulling into Homestead-Miami Speedway, at that time the host of NASCAR’s championship race. As I wheeled into the middle-of-nowhere track, I nearly ran head-on into a trim, focused cyclist, wheeling it at high speed out onto the flat, straight roadways around Homestead. You don’t often see cyclists, much less those in that kind of shape, around NASCAR tracks, so it wasn’t hard to figure out who it was.
The man atop the bike was, of course, Jimmie Johnson. Here he was, days away from a championship race, and he decided to go out for a casual 30-mile-or-so bike ride over the swampy South Florida landscape, gators in the nearby water and sportswriters driving rental cars on the road.
It’s not the way Dale Earnhardt would have prepped for a championship race, that’s for damn sure. But then, Johnson was just days away from tying Earnhardt’s seven championships, so who’s to say which way is right?
NASCAR likes its champions larger than life. Earnhardt. Richard Petty. Tony Stewart. Men who cast a shadow a mile long. Men who could alter the trajectory of the garage with a single quote. Men you always feared, never more so than when they were in your rearview mirror.
Johnson, who drives his final race as a full-time Cup driver on Sunday, never quite fit that icon mold. Sure, he belongs on NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore, but he looks more like the guy who’d be visiting Mount Rushmore with his wife and daughters.
Johnson retires as one of the most decorated NASCAR drivers in history: tied for sixth all-time in wins with 83, tied for first all-time in championships with seven. He spent the vast majority of the 2000s and 2010s as the most dominant driver in the sport, to the point that Jimmie Johnson-vs.-the field bets were a legitimately debatable proposition. He won every championship between 2006 and 2010, an astounding record of success.
And yet, it’s hard not to feel the guy still never got his proper respect.
Always outwardly calm, always professional, always relentless in his forward progress, the same qualities that made Johnson a finely honed product of 21st-century NASCAR kept him from enjoying the love, or even the hate, of most NASCAR fans. You may not have liked Jimmie, especially when he was in the process of beating the brakes off your driver year after year after year, but you couldn’t really hate the guy any more than you could hate a rainstorm or an early sunrise.
Speaking of early sunrises: that was another of Jimmie’s tricks, to schedule his media appearances as early as possible. You want to knock sportswriters off their game, get them out of bed early. Johnson always looked for the edge in every situation.
Not that Johnson was ever in the middle of many media battles. Where drivers like Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski have happily delivered messages to rivals through the media, Johnson spent the vast majority of his career kicked back, contemplative, handling questions like a tennis backboard — replying in kind, but never conceding an inch.
You know the line about nice guys finishing last. Somehow, Johnson has managed to be both “nice” and, you know, win a ton of races. So he takes issue with the very premise of the “finishing last” idea.
“Competition is fierce and you have to be cutthroat at times,” Johnson said earlier this month, “but I think I’m one of quite a few examples that if you just be yourself, and do your thing, you can be respectful and kind to others and still succeed in a competitive sport.”
It’s almost tough to remember now, given that he hasn’t won a race since June 2017, but there was a time when you’d bet on the sun not rising before you’d bet against Johnson at Dover, Martinsville or Charlotte. He’s got more wins at those three tracks than Cup champions like Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Bobby Labonte and Terry Labonte have in their entire careers.
How durable is Johnson’s championship record? Kyle Busch, the closest active driver to Johnson’s championship win total, would need to win every title until 2025 to even match Johnson’s achievement.
Johnson takes a lot of grief for being a product of the Chase era, which prized running well at 10 postseason tracks ahead of running well over the course of a full season. And yes, all of Johnson’s best tracks — his top three, plus Texas (7 wins) — just happened to all fall in the Chase schedule every year. But how’s that his fault? You run under the same conditions as everyone else. He was racing Harvick and Stewart and Jeff Gordon, not Earnhardt and Petty, and he still beat them all.
If anything, wins seemed to come too easily for Johnson. Way back in 2010, Harvick accused Johnson of having a golden horseshoe lodged up his, uh, tailpipe, an accusation-slash-compliment that stuck with Johnson for years afterward. Johnson always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, whether it was eluding a multi-car wreck at Talladega or swooping in to capture his final championship in 2016 with an inferior car when Carl Edwards and Joey Logano collided at Homestead.
So now, Johnson leaves NASCAR, off to a life of Indy Car racing, hanging out in Aspen, and, yeah, biking anywhere and everywhere. The pandemic robbed him of a legitimate, well-deserved victory lap around the NASCAR circuit. He never got the love of a Dale Earnhardt Jr., never inspired the rage of a Kyle Busch in his day.
But he earned the respect of an entire garage; the right to drive anything, anywhere, for the rest of his days … and enough trophies to furnish an estate. As legacies go, that’s not bad. Not bad at all.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More from Yahoo Sports: