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AVONDALE, ARIZONA - NOVEMBER 08: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, is congratulated by Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet, and  team owner and NASCAR Hall of Famer Rick Hendrick after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Season Finale 500 and the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on November 08, 2020 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) | Getty Images
AVONDALE, ARIZONA - NOVEMBER 08: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, is congratulated by Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet, and team owner and NASCAR Hall of Famer Rick Hendrick after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Season Finale 500 and the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway on November 08, 2020 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images) | Getty Images

Jimmie Johnson Phoenix post-race transcript

An Interview With: JIMMIE JOHNSON

Jimmie, what did you tell Chase when you saw him after the race?  And also, do you have any plans for your helmet, gloves and that type of stuff?

JIMMIE JOHNSON:  I don’t remember what I said to him.  There was a lot of screaming.  I remember him saying, “Can you believe it?”

Just so happy for him.  I’m sure I was saying something along those lines, just how happy I am for him.  I saw him on track and left a big donut on the side of his car.  I was able to get a high‑five as he was coming around to do burnouts.  And I was waving good‑bye.  So certainly a couple cool moments.

Helmet and gloves?  I haven’t thought too far.  Chase and I have been talking about a helmet swap, so this might be a good opportunity to swap helmets with him tonight.  We’ll see how that goes.

What were the emotions like prior to the race today?

JIMMIE JOHNSON:  Really just excited.  Excited to do this, excited to get on track and have this final event.  For me the hardest point was about this time last year when thoughts were heavy on my mind and I was going to make the decision and made the decision to myself and my family, then had to go to Rick’s house and talk that through with Mr. Hendrick.  So that point in time was probably the most emotional and most difficult.

And as the year has gone by, many moments of reflection and just pride.  Then all of that rolled into today and just very excited to be on track.

It was nice to be competitive out there and run the top 5, finish in the top 5, but my bucket is full.  NASCAR has been so wonderful for me.  This journey has been more than I could have ever dreamed of or expected or hoped for.

The last couple years on track weren’t as I dreamed up, but I’ve experienced the highest of highs and worked with the greatest people, been with one team through this entire journey, and just very thankful for all the people that have helped me get here.

All those emotions and all that pride rolled up into just a huge smile today walking out on the grid.

To be fifth and only be the top driver behind the Championship 4, does that have any special significance in your last race, to go out as that guy that’s just behind those guys?

JIMMIE JOHNSON:  No, it does.  I didn’t realize that was the case.  And Evie told me that on pit lane.  She said, Daddy, I think you won.  She said, No, the first four cars were in the championship and you beat everybody else.

She brought it to my attention and had her own version of my winning, which I appreciated.

Just a good competitive day.  I could see the 11 up there and was slowly catching him but just kind of ran out of laps.  It was nice to keep my eyes forward and have a great car and race that hard all day long.

When you look back on this season, what are some lessons you have learned as a competitor?

JIMMIE JOHNSON:  Lesson?  I would say I thought I hit bottom a few times, and there was a bottom a little lower than what I envisioned.  I felt like on track there was mistakes that I made and we had issues, times where the team made mistakes, had bad luck on track, supposedly had COVID and missed the Brickyard 400.  There were just many lows that kept rolling.  When I thought that was it, there was another low.

I just had to figure out how to put a smile on my face, what was important to me and what 2020 was going to be like, regardless of the way things took place on the track.

I really hit that stride.  It doesn’t mean I didn’t pout from time to time because performance on track really sets your mood for the week, but I found a way to smile and work through it and finish strong.

And then down the road when you’re looking back on this race this weekend, particularly today’s race in particular, what are you going to remember most or what’s going to stick out the most to you?

JIMMIE JOHNSON:  Chase Elliott won his first championship.  I’m so happy for that guy.  Great friend, great family.  I’ve been friends with his mom and dad for a lot of years.  I can recall going snowboarding with Bill out in Colorado and Chase was maybe eight years old, something like that, on skis, super quiet, wouldn’t say much.

To watch him grow up and to be around him and to give him some advice from time to time has really been meaningful for me.  Today I think more about him winning a championship more than anything is pretty awesome.

I just wanted to get your opinion on this:  Your final Cup championship you came from the rear and won.  Chase did it in his first Cup championship.  Has that dawned on you and do you feel like it’s a passing of the torch for Hendrick Motorsports?

JIMMIE JOHNSON:  That’s what went through my mind today when I heard they were going to the back.  I sent Alan and Chase a text and reminded them that I won a championship that way.

Then I saw Chase just before the trucks rolled, just before the driver intro part of the ceremonies this morning, and I reminded him, I’ve been there.  Of the championships I’ve won coming from the back, I had less nervous energy in my body when I took the green flag and it was very easy what I needed to do.

I shared that with him, and he smiled and he said, I hope that’s how it goes today.  And it did.  We didn’t think of it as a passing of the torch, but I tried to share some of my experience with him before the race.

He doesn’t need my help.  He’s plenty good on his own.  I’m glad it worked out for him.

You know what a first championship meant to you.  What do you think it’s going to mean to Chase, and how does that reshape a driver’s career, do you think?

JIMMIE JOHNSON:  You know, it really does change your confidence as a driver, as the leader of a race team.  You know, it positions you just different in the fan space.  There’s a bunch of credibility that comes with that.  Not that Chase needs any fans, but I’m sure there might be naysayers out there.

A big moment like this really cements you in everybody’s head as the real deal.  It’s one thing to win races, it’s one thing to be fast, but to get it all done and win races and be fast and win a championship is the most difficult thing to do in our sport.

For him to have a championship at this age and being so young, there’s no telling what the win total will be for him or his championship total.

Jimmie, your feelings about going out at such a competitive level.  You talked a moment ago about the lows and everything like that.  How do you feel about going out with a performance where you kind of drove from the back and stayed up front all day?

JIMMIE JOHNSON:  It definitely feels good for my final race to run well.  A big tent full of friends here watching.  My family was clearly here.  I didn’t have too much riding on today.  Making sure that I had a good run just because I always plan to run well.  In my head I always feel like I should.

But ultimately this year is just a little bit bittersweet for me.  And to have the issues we’ve had and not be competitive down the stretch, not make the Playoffs, all that still stings.

But to finish with a solid top 5 to close things out is nice.

I was wondering, has it hit you yet that this is the end of your full‑time career in NASCAR, or do you think that’ll come later?

JIMMIE JOHNSON:  I’ve let in about as much as I can.  I feel like the off‑season will happen, and I won’t have team meetings and 2021 planning meetings, and my trips to the shop won’t be as frequent.  I’ll still go and still be around HMS just because it’s home.

But I think as next year comes around and I don’t go to Daytona for the 500 and those firsts that come along, that’s when it will take deeper ‑‑ it’ll continue to set in deeper and deeper then.

But I feel like I’ve had a special week, a lot of friends in town, I’ve spoken a lot on the phone, a lot of texts, very meaningful conversations, and very thankful that I’ve had that from friends, family, a lot of my peers here today, so I’m feeling pretty full right now.

COVID has affected this year in a bunch of ways at the track, obviously, and you hadn’t been able to have your family with you most of the year.  How special was it to have them with you today on what was obviously a really special day for you?

JIMMIE JOHNSON:  Yeah, that was everything.  They haven’t been to a race since Fontana.  So to have them here and have them a part of this is something I’ve really, really hoped could happen.  And once I knew we were going to have fans at the track, I felt like the chances were high.  Very thankful I was able to have them here.

Jimmie, obviously you’re not done racing, period.  You’re moving to INDYCAR next year.  When do you start your preparations going to Chip Ganassi Racing for next season, and how much are you looking forward to INDYCAR?  Is it going to be kind of like a rebirth for you in a way?

JIMMIE JOHNSON:  Yeah, I’m not sure what to think of it all just yet.  I was able to drive the car on Monday in Alabama at the Barber racetrack.  Learned a lot, and I know the areas that I need to work to be more competitive in those cars.

I’m also traveling tomorrow to Monterey, California.  We’re testing there on Tuesday, so I get another shot at testing the car and getting a feel for things.

I’m integrated into the team.  Certainly more throughout the off‑season will take place.  Their season just finished and obviously ours did, as well.

But I’m plugged in over there and trying to learn what I can and just trying to make the switch from a car with very little downforce to a car with a lot of downforce.  I have a big challenge ahead of myself.

Very few people in any stage of life get to go out on their own terms.  Could you give us some insight into how special that element of it makes all of this that has happened to you?  And also, they showed on TV out on pit road a group hug.  It was you, Mr. H and Chase.  Do you remember what you felt at that moment or anything that was said?

JIMMIE JOHNSON:  I don’t.  Chase kept saying, “Can you believe it?”  I don’t know what I was saying, but I just ‑‑ I’m just so proud of Chase.  Then to be there with Rick, that’s the first time I’ve seen Rick in person since March.

There was a lot going on there in one moment I think for all three of us.  A very meaningful moment for me to be there with Rick and with Chase, but I can’t remember what was exactly said.  Of course very happy and all the things that come along those lines.

What was your first question?

The ability to go out on your own terms, which very few people are able to do.

JIMMIE JOHNSON:  Yeah, I mean, I have friends that have been NASCAR drivers, friends of mine that have played professional football, professional baseball.  Very few have had the opportunity to call their shot and say when they’re done.  Some have had injury, some were forced out, some sponsorship or opportunity passed them by.  And either way, watching them, there’s a big void that I’ve noticed.

I’m just thankful that I won’t have that void.  I was able to do it on my terms, was able to have the support from Ally and Mr. Hendrick and Hendrick Motorsports to be able to step down when I wanted to and on my terms, so I’m very thankful for that.

You mentioned kind of the intense amount of spotlight or pressure that comes with being a champion.  I’m wondering what advice you have for Chase given that you’re kind of making your exit and he’s starting this championship assent?

JIMMIE JOHNSON:  Yeah, we talk a lot, and he has an amazing grasp on things.  At the end of the day it’s really the driver and the crew chief and how they want to conduct business.  Alan and Chase have a great relationship.  They know what they need out of each other.

Chase being as young as he is has a ton of wisdom and a ton of knowledge, and clearly he’s been around the sport for a lot of years and a lot of great people that he surrounds himself with.  I’m always amazed when we chat just how put together his thoughts are when we do talk.

At his age, my head was scrambled and I was all over the place.  We chatted a couple times this week, and he had it all in line.  I could generally tell that his head was in the right place.  He didn’t have unneeded nerves and anxiety flowing through him.  He really was calm and ready to get out here and get to work.

Then, of course, starting at the back, it was a real test of the system at that point.  I saw him before we rolled out to the cars, and he was at peace.  He’s just really wise beyond his years, and with that, extremely talented.

Jimmie, I just want to know, was there an interaction maybe you had with a fan or just anyone maybe just a little bit outside the racing community that you aren’t always around with that kind of will always stick with you and just really encapsulates everything you’ve done in your career?

JIMMIE JOHNSON:  I rolled around the track and waved goodbye and came down pit lane and gave a high five to every single crew member down pit lane.  They all came off the wall and were standing out there.  There was a long, long line of crew members.  That respect from my peers and respect from the industry is something I’ll never, ever forget.

I know you’ve been doing a lot of contemplating, so my question for you is if you could talk to your younger self back in the year 2000 when you knew you were going to get the chance to drive in Cup, would you have believed you were going to have this incredible journey as a seven‑time champion?

JIMMIE JOHNSON:  No, there’s no way.  I would have told myself to relax, everything is going to be just fine.  I don’t know if I would have asked to change much because I am who I am and all of the overthinking and worrying and the sleepless nights and waking up early to try to find an advantage, all that paid off, so I don’t know if I would change anything.

But maybe I’d tell myself just to chill out and enjoy the ride because everything was going to turn out just fine.

I just absolutely want to thank the media.  I’ve known many of you for a lot of years, and just thank you for covering the sport.  Thank you for being a part of this industry.  Most of all, thank you for being a friend and being on this journey together.

You work very hard.  You are first in, last out, away from your families, away from your friends, more than I even am, and I know how hard it is on my end.  Sincere thank you to all of you, and look forward to seeing you guys less often, not because I don’t want to see you but because I’m slowing down and I’ll only be in the media center at a few INDYCAR races.  So thank you very much.  See you in March.

— NASCAR —