DAYTONA BEACH — When Jimmie Johnson leaves his full-time NASCAR ride after this season, the series will lose one of its greatest champions.
The drivers in the garage will lose something else — something that transcends Johnson’s seven Cup Series titles, 83 wins and two Daytona 500 triumphs.
“It’s going to be a huge loss for our sport not having Jimmie Johnson here,” veteran driver J.J. Yeley said. “Not because of him being a seven-time champion, but just the fact that he is one of the classiest drivers that we’ve had in this sport.”
Classy in victory. Classy in defeat. Classy to veterans. Classy to rookies. Classy to teammates and rivals, champions and also-rans.
Every driver in the field for Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500 has a story about Johnson’s generosity and grace. Like this one, from Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman.
In 2014, Bowman was a 21-year-old rookie on low-budget BK Racing, where he snagged only one top-20 finish all season. Johnson still noticed how well Bowman was doing with his lackluster equipment, and he told him so after one impressive-given-the-circumstances result.
“He’s like, ‘Man, that thing looked terrible,’” Bowman said. “‘You’re driving the crap out of it. You’re doing a really good job.’ He was the first guy to come up and say that.”
Austin Dillon wasn’t even in the Cup Series yet when Johnson began giving him advice.
As Dillon battled for a championship in the Nationwide Series, he reached out to Johnson, hoping a fellow Chevrolet driver would share some insight on how to handle a title hunt. Johnson didn’t just respond; he began texting Dillon after ever race, then started setting weekly goals for him.
“He came back with everything he could give me,” Dillon said.
Dillon finished third that season, but the conversations continued the next year. By then, Johnson started asking him for feedback on the track.
“I was just kind of, mind blown, that he was able to talk to someone that’s in a lesser series and be able to learn from them and take anything that he could take and apply it to his game,” Dillon said.
Some of Johnson’s memorable interactions take place in public.
After Chase Elliott ran out of gas moments after winning at Watkins Glen in 2018, Johnson pushed Elliott’s car around the track so his teammate could celebrate his first Cup victory properly.
“That was about as cool as me winning the race,” Elliott said.
Some of Johnson’s lasting impressions happen in private.
When Yeley made a rookie mistake that knocked them both out years ago, Johnson screamed at first. But by the time they got into the infield to discuss what happened, Johnson was apologizing.
“It was just one of those veteran moments where he took a rookie and explained to him what had gone wrong,” Yeley said. “I don’t see that happen anymore in our sport.”
And some of Johnson’s generosity has nothing to do with the sport.
Want a ride home from the track? A cycling partner? Some personal advice?
Johnson’s there for all of it.
“If you ever need anything,” 2017 Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. said, “call Jimmie Johnson.”
But why does Johnson always answer?
Unlike a lot of Sunday’s field, Johnson climbed to NASCAR’s top series slowly. He didn’t debut at Daytona as a teenage hotshot; he was a 26-year-old who still didn’t know if he belonged in the series, let alone if he could make a career out of it. He did (obviously), but only because established veterans helped him along the way.
“I’ve always had people be open and available for me, and I know how it’s shaped my career,” Johnson said. “I just wanted to do the same.”
So he has. Just ask Matt DiBenedetto.
Like Johnson, DiBenedetto’s career hasn’t been a straight shot to the top. The 28-year-old Californian is on his fourth Cup team in six years and is winless in 176 starts.
But if DiBenedetto ever feels down, Johnson is there to pick him up, to reinforce him, to remind him to keep grinding.
“He understands my path to get here and how hard I’ve worked,” DiBenedetto said. “For Jimmie Johnson, seven-time champ and great guy, (to) always be so encouraging throughout my career has meant a lot more than he’ll know.”