INDIANAPOLIS — Jimmie Johnson and his family took every precaution to avoid the coronavirus.
They washed their hands frequently, diligently followed face-mask guidelines and even left their home in Charlotte, N.C., for less densely populated Aspen, Col.
And yet the NASCAR Cup Series driver and his wife, Chani, still tested positive for the illness this week. Johnson became the first driver in any NASCAR series to test positive, and he pulled out of Sunday’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, ending his streak of 663 consecutive Cup starts.
“We’re being very responsible in our home and trying to self-isolate, but at the same time, we have to parent on top of their (children’s) fears,” the seven-time Cup champion said Saturday by Zoom from Colorado.
The Johnsons have two daughters, Genevieve, 9, and Lydia, 6. Both girls tested negative, Johnson said.
He and Chani are OK, Johnson said, “but for a 9-year-old and 6-year-old, it’s hard. We can’t feed them. We’re heartbroken to see the fear in their eyes.”
Johnson was in Indianapolis on Wednesday and returned to Aspen. He was supposed to return to Indianapolis on Saturday. He didn’t have an inkling anything was wrong until Friday.
Though Chani had been experiencing seasonal allergy symptoms in the early summer mountain air and Johnson, 44, was using his routine prescription medicine to confront his seasonal allergies, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
Chani Johnson, a “rule follower” her husband said, went for a coronavirus test because of the allergies. Her results came back positive Friday morning, and Johnson and their daughters immediately went to be tested.
“It would be very easy right now to get bummed out,” said Johnson, who already announced he would retire as a full-time driver at the end of this season. “But if it wasn’t for Chani’s diligence to do the right thing, we’d be going on with life as normal, and who knows who we could have come in contact with and infected.”
Doctors believe Chani already has endured the worst of the illness. Johnson, who said he has had only a tickle in his throat, appears to be asymptomatic.
But the ramifications reverberate around the racing community.
Johnson said he has spoken with representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as part of a contact tracing initiative and continues to seek out answers on a litany of questions. One thing he’s not certain about is a positive test for antibodies he said he received early in the pandemic.
“I was warned by my physician then that although I did test positive for the antibodies, there’s a 20 percent chance that it’s incorrect,” Johnson said. “On top of the fact that they don’t know what the antibodies mean. Still today, I don’t know what they mean.
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“Once I clear this and go back into life, I assume I still need to be very cautious and I could be re-infected once again. There are just so many questions regarding this virus and what means what. I still don’t have clarity. The longer I get into this and the more issues I deal with, the more questions I have.”
He can’t return to racing until he’s free of symptoms and has two negative tests in a 24-hour span. Justin Allgaier will replace Johnson in Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 Chevrolet for the Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400, and one team member — the mechanic in charge of Johnson’s cockpit — has been quarantined because he’s the only Hendrick employee to have come into close contact with the driver.
“Purely out of precaution, the interior mechanic was the one person we could identify who had contact with Jimmie or his suit or whatever,” said Jeff Andrews, the team’s vice president of competition.
NASCAR president Steve Phelps said on NBC the series is hopeful Johnson can be back by next Sunday’s Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway. The series does not test for the coronavirus, and Phelps did not indicate that Johnson’s positive result would change that.
“I think the protocols have actually worked really, really well for us,” Phelps said. “Obviously, it is unfortunate that Jimmie is going to be out of the car this weekend. I think if you look at the procedures that we have in place and the policies that we have in place, really, to protect the drivers, the crews, our own officials and anyone who is working at the race track — the number of positive tests that we’ve had has been so, so far and few and far between.”
Johnson is the first NASCAR driver to test positive since the sport resumed in May after it suspended its season following a March 8 race. Two teams have confirmed that shop-based employees who do not travel to the track have had positive tests.
NASCAR announced Friday it would give Johnson a playoff waiver, making him playoff eligible if he earns one of the 16 spots or if he ends a three-year victory drought and finishes in the top 30 in points. Johnson is 12th in the standings, 63 points inside the playoff picture.
Back at the mountain home, other adjustments are being made.
Johnson plans to watch NASCAR racing on television for the first time since he became a Cup regular in 2002 while trying to figure out how to celebrate the holiday weekend and a birthday with the children.
“We’re very scared to be around them and interact with them, not to mention my oldest has her birthday coming up on (Tuesday),” he said. “We’re going to be celebrating inside our house, but it’s really been tough for our kids to grasp.”
— By MICHAEL MAROT
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