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Randy Hallman's Full Throttle: For Johnson, an honor hardly noticed in a season to forget

Randy Hallman's Full Throttle: For Johnson, an honor hardly noticed in a season to forget

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So that was that for Jimmie Johnson at Richmond Raceway. Did you even notice?

Johnson started Saturday’s Federated Auto Parts 400 18th, finished 31st — five laps behind the winner. He never led and didn’t look as if he could, especially after his Chevrolet sustained damage in the early going when he scraped the wall and then nicked another driver’s fender.

There was a prerace ceremony. Richmond Raceway named its expanded pedestrian tunnel — the one that connects the grandstands to the track’s fan-friendly infield — the Jimmie Johnson Champions Walk. In the future, Jimmie and other NASCAR champions will be recognized there.

No fans were on hand. Hardly any media were allowed under NASCAR’s COVID-19 protocol. To top it off, for one reason or another, Johnson wasn’t able to be there either.

So the track’s farewell to the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion barely registered. Sadly, that’s not very different from the way his last season as a full-time driver has gone.

Johnson, about to turn 45, hasn’t won a race in more than three years. This year he missed one event after testing positive for the coronavirus. His best finish, second place in the 600-miler at Charlotte Motor Speedway, was wiped out when his car failed postrace inspection.

He had announced before this season began (seems like a decade ago) that 2020 would be the last year when he’d run the full Cup schedule.

Then the pandemic got a grip on the sports world. What would have been a goodbye-Jimmie tour with all manner of fan adoration, turned into an itinerary of tracks with grandstands that were either empty or sparsely populated.

Speedway staffers dreamed up ways to honor Johnson, whose record-matching seven championships have given the modern-day sport a nominee in the greatest-ever conversation, alongside the two seven-timer champs from earlier eras — Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

Besides winning 83 races in his career — tied with Cale Yarborough for sixth on the all-time list and only one win short of a tie with Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for fourth — Johnson has been an ideal ambassador for the sport.

He’s a family man and a fitness paragon. He is an example of how a driver represents a corporate sponsor in a sport that lives on such relationships.

An articulate spokesman when it matters most, he has been a leader in support of Bubba Wallace and in NASCAR’s determination to stand against racial injustice.

There was talk of making the necessary arrangements and asking Johnson to run another NASCAR season so he could have a more satisfying farewell tour. But the driver eliminated that possibility last week with the announcement that he was finishing details on a deal with car owner Chip Ganassi to run about a dozen IndyCar events in 2021.

He may show up for a NASCAR race now and then — Ganassi owns multicar teams in both series — but Johnson is done with NASCAR as a full-time practitioner. He’s moving on.

He isn’t among the 16 drivers eligible for the Cup Series championship in the NASCAR playoffs. In a conversation before the Richmond race, I asked him what his goals are for the 2020 season.

“Trophies and spraying champagne,” he said, laughing. “That’s all that’s left for me.”

He wants to win another race before he’s done. “That’s the way I’m programmed,” he said. “I’m wired to win races.”

He didn’t have high expectations for Richmond, he said, because it had been a while since he’d had success there. He won three of four races on the ¾-mile track in 2007-08, but didn’t win before and hasn’t won since. He hasn’t led a lap at Richmond since 2016.

The Nov. 1 race at Martinsville Speedway — where he has won nine races, most recently in 2016 — offers a better opportunity, he said.

Even though he’s now on a 122-race losing streak, he thinks he and his team can win before the year is over. “The team has been strong,” he said. “I think we’re knocking on the door.”

I asked him if he could see this as a satisfactory year, even though he’s winless so far.

“Well,” he said, “it depends on how I frame it up.

“Every year has its journey. I’m someone who wants to learn lessons and grow, and I believe that has happened.”

He has come to new ways to understand what’s important in life, he said, “dealing with the pandemic, keeping my family safe.”

He said NASCAR’s hurry-up schedule, with no practice or qualifying, turned into a bonus.

“The year has had its silver lining — time with my family. It’s been great having Fridays and Saturdays at home. That’s usually time spent at the racetrack.”

He has also had time to set up plans for his venture into IndyCar racing in 2021.

“If I look at my performance in NASCAR,” he said, “no, I’m not happy. I’ve made some mistakes. If I look at the stats singularly, no, I’m not happy at all. I believe I’m better than that. This team is better than that.

“But if I look at the year itself and all that’s going on, that’s different.”

Yes, that is different. And even if these last eight races are little more than the final fizzle, Johnson will be remembered as an all-time great. Not only for the way he raced, and not only when we amble under Richmond Raceway’s track surface via the Jimmie Johnson Champions Walk.

NASCAR Cup Series

Federated Auto Parts 400

At Richmond Raceway (Saturday)

Lap length: 0.75 miles

(Start position in parentheses, with manufacturer, laps and points)

1. (9) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 400, 57

2. (14) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 400, 47

3. (2) Joey Logano, Ford, 400, 49

4. (3) Austin Dillon, Chevy, 400, 51

5. (12) Chase Elliott, Chevy, 400, 41

6. (6) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 400, 36

7. (1) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 400, 37

8. (10) Aric Almirola, Ford, 400, 32

9. (4) Alex Bowman, Chevy, 400, 33

10. (11) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 400, 28

11. (22) Tyler Reddick, Chevy, 400, 26

12. (7) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 399, 35

13. (8) Kurt Busch, Chevy, 399, 28

14. (13) Cole Custer, Ford, 399, 23

15. (26) Christopher Bell, Toyota, 399, 22

16. (19) Matt Kenseth, Chevy, 399, 23

17. (16) Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 399, 20

18. (23) R. Stenhouse Jr, Chevy, 398, 21

19. (15) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 398, 18

20. (24) Ryan Preece, Chevy, 398, 17

21. (5) William Byron, Chevy, 398, 16

22. (17) Erik Jones, Toyota, 398, 15

23. (21) Ryan Newman, Ford, 397, 14

24. (25) Chris Buescher, Ford, 397, 13

25. (20) Michael McDowell, Ford, 397, 12

26. (30) Bubba Wallace, Chevy, 397, 11

27. (34) Corey Lajoie, Ford, 396, 10

28. (27) Ty Dillon, Chevy, 396, 9

29. (28) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 396, 8

30. (31) John H. Nemechek, Ford, 396, 7

31. (18) Jimmie Johnson, Chevy, 395, 6

32. (33) Quin Houff, Chevy, 390, 5

33. (29) Brennan Poole, Chevy, 390, 4

34. (32) JJ Yeley, Chevy, 388, 0

35. (36) Joey Gase, Ford, 387, 0

36. (35) Reed Sorenson, Chevy, 387, 1

37. (38) James Davison, Ford, 385, 1

38. (37) g-Timmy Hill, Toyota, 100, 0

Reason out: g-garage

Race Statistics

Winner’s Average Speed: 101.862 mph. Time: 2 hours, 56 minutes, 42 seconds. Margin of Victory: 1.568 seconds. Cautions: 3 for 21 laps. Lead Changes: 19 among 9 drivers

Lap Leaders: K.Harvick 0-20; A.Dillon 21-33; B.Poole 34; A.Dillon 35-38; D.Hamlin 39-83; A.Dillon 84; J.Logano 85-120; B.Keselowski 121-162; K.Harvick 163-181; A.Dillon 182-217; B.Keselowski 218-293; C.Elliott 294-295; Ku.Busch 296-307; J.Logano 308-316; B.Keselowski 317-342; Ky.Busch 343-346; K.Harvick 347-348; Ku.Busch 349-351; A.Dillon 352; B.Keselowski 353-400

Randy Hallman, a veteran NASCAR writer, is retired from the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @RandyLHallman.

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