Jimmie Johnson has been hunkered down during the coronavirus pandemic, logging virtual practice laps for what should be an unpredictable first race back for NASCAR, and reflecting on what is supposed to be his final full-time season behind the wheel.
“It’s going to be nutty, to say the least,” the seven-time Cup Series champion said to ESPN’s Marty & McGee, in a “Show & Tell” interview for SEC Network. He was speaking of NASCAR’s May 17 return to action, a 400-mile event at the treacherous Darlington Raceway that will be held after no practice or qualifying sessions and 70 days since the series’ last laps were run at Phoenix Raceway. It will kick off an unprecedented stretch of four Cup Series races in 11 days, two each at Darlington and Charlotte Motor Speedway, run under strict social distancing guidelines and without fans in the stands.
The two months of NASCAR’s absence have been filled with televised virtual racing, during which Johnson has struggled for good finishes and has even routinely poked fun at his crashes via social media. But when the TV cameras have been off, Johnson has still been in his simulator preparing for the tricky 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval where he has won three times before.
“It has been highly frustrating for me to be competitive,” he said of his iRacing results, adding, “But the machine and the platform can be very useful for situations like we’re going to have, with no practice, coming up. So, I’ve run probably 300 or 400 laps already at Darlington just to get the rhythm and the feel and the idea of what to expect. Because I’ve never been cold turkey at a track before and rolled straight in and lined it up and raced.”
If not for the pandemic, which caused NASCAR to leave Atlanta Motor Speedway on March 13, Johnson would be a dozen races into what was supposed to be a farewell tour of sorts, his 19th and final full-time season. Instead, he has run only four races and has no idea what the remaining schedule will be. NASCAR has announced its plans only through May 27.
“It’s been complicated,” Johnson said. “At times I feel the fans, my fans specifically, are missing out on something, you know? Sure, we’re going back racing, but we probably aren’t hitting all the tracks we intended to … but for my own accord, and for my family, it’s been a nice window into what the future will be like, and what 2021 will be like. And it’s been nice. I really have enjoyed being around.
“My mind has kind of wandered off into things that I’ve wanted to accomplish, personally, and where I want to spend my time, personally, and kind of pull back from that professional work mode and get a bit more balance.”
But while he says that he still has his eye on more racing, specifically IndyCar and sports cars, the parts of the 2020 season lost to the pandemic have not changed his mind about this year’s farewell plans.
“It’s only cemented my decision in making 2020 my last full-time year in Cup. But I still have some plans to race, and hopefully I’m going to have some time to gear up to make some decisions soon on what I can do in ’21 and beyond.”