CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson has a reputation as a bland and boring NASCAR champion, a guy who loves his ice cream the same way he presents himself — plain and vanilla.
The reputation was earned through his workmanlike approach while winning five straight NASCAR titles. Boring he is not.
Johnson’s commitment to excellence in everything he does makes him not just one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history but also one of the most well-rounded and interesting athletes in the world. Now he gets to show that because Lowe’s is leaving the sport after 18 years as the only Cup Series sponsor Johnson has ever had.
Eighty-three victories in that Lowes-branded No. 48 Chevrolet.
All those titles. A unique sportsman for Hendrick Motorsports to sell.
And Johnson believes he is more than just a driver looking for a new paint scheme that can be auctioned off to the highest bidder.
At 42, Johnson is still a top driver and adamant that retirement is nowhere on his radar.
Yet the statistics and history of NASCAR are clear: The twilight of his career has arrived and he’s got to sell something besides winning.
“I think for this seller’s market, clearly someone has a golden opportunity to close out with me,” Johnson said during an interview with The Associated Press.
Johnson doesn’t know when that is, but he does have a grand plan that could include everything from driving Le Mans and the Rolex 24 at Daytona to competitive mountain biking — anything that allows the California son of two working parents to chase his desire to win and avoid retirement.
“I know I can’t turn off the competition,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been more motivated; I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything more. I want to race and I want to win and I want to do that for a very long time. Me being selfish about what I want to do, the next sponsor transitions with me.”
Johnson has matured from the rookie who did the things young men just becoming famous sometimes do. Like the time he broke his wrist but lied about how it happened so he didn’t have to tell Lowe’s or team owner Rick Hendrick he was surfing on top of a golf cart during a rowdy outing with his friends. He still has fun, but now he runs triathlons, takes team members mountain biking in the woods and will do anything to get a workout in.
Alas, he is mired in the longest losing streak of his Cup career: 31 races stretching back almost a year. He turns 43 in September and has two years remaining on his Hendrick contract; there might be another short NASCAR contract after that.
“I’ve got a handful of years in Cup,” he said, leaving himself wiggle room regarding just how many. “If we can find the right sponsor to transition from full-time NASCAR ... I mean, I can’t stop racing. I’m always going to be racing something. I’m going to step down from the NASCAR merry-go-round at some point, but I’ve got a bucket list.”
Johnson got to thinking after a chance encounter in January with two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso, who is on a quest to race in the top events around the world. Alonso entered the Indianapolis 500 last year, led laps, but failed to finish after his engine blew.
What about the Indianapolis 500, the race he most admired as a child but has been barred from racing by his wife?
“I like those halos in Formula One. Those could get me a little closer to that race,” Johnson said.
For now, Johnson remains firmly committed to himself and pursuit of a record eighth championship.
But he knows what he is up against.
There has been a total rebuild at Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet rolled out a new Camaro. Johnson blames neither the car nor his young new teammates for his struggles. He has used this period to take on a bigger role and fill the shoes of four-time champion Jeff Gordon.
Johnson sought help from former NFL player Leonard Wheeler, who is now a performance coach, and he learned how to better communicate with crew chief Chad Knaus.
“I’m one that clams up and gets quiet when things get tough, and Chad can make things tough,” Johnson said. “I found that the team doesn’t need me to be quiet and the team suffers from it, so I’ve made some huge strides in growth in that department.”
A swimmer, diver and water polo player in high school, Johnson realized he did best in a locker-room environment, which doesn’t exist in racing. He has learned to recognize what triggers Knaus and come to understand how to confront each issue.
At the end of last season, he said, he was so shut down that he and Knaus were not discussing problems. Crew members began whispering about friction and “it was just toxic,” Johnson said.
“I know I am going to flourish and do a better job and be who I need to be in that type of (locker-room) environment, so I am going to create it,” Johnson said.