CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson stood alone on the track at Pocono Raceway, empty grandstands in front of him, a ghost town of a garage behind him. He was posing for photos to commemorate his final start at the Pennsylvania track but seemed to be the only one at the party.
This final full-time season in NASCAR for the seven-time champion has hardly been the sendoff tour anyone imagined. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were feted at nearly every track in their retirement seasons with gifts, special mentions and rousing ovations from the crowd.
Johnson has been denied all of the attention. The coronavirus pandemic halted racing for 10 weeks, spectators have largely been banned and pre-race programs that would have honored Johnson have been scrapped.
Then came the cruelest blow of all: Johnson tested positive for the coronavirus and his streak of 663-consecutive starts — most among active NASCAR drivers — came to an end Sunday when he missed the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Johnson won't be cleared to race until he tests negative twice in a 24-hour span. Johnson is expected to be retested this week in an effort to get back in the No. 48 Chevrolet for Sunday's race at Kentucky Speedway.
This farewell party has been an absolute bust, but Johnson isn't feeling sorry for himself.
“I can be down and out on my situation, but if I turn on the news and I see how this virus has impacted so many others, I quickly feel thankful that I’m asymptomatic and that I don’t have any major issues,” Johnson said. “We’re hopeful that through our situation that maybe some others can learn from this as well.”
Both Johnson and his wife, Chani, tested positive. He said their two young daughters tested negative.
The positive test stunned Johnson, a fitness freak who has studied nutrition, cycled through the mountains with Lance Armstrong, swam with Olympians and completed the Boston Marathon. He insisted his family, led by “rule follower” Chani, was diligent in trying to protect themselves from the virus and have no idea how it was contracted.
In fact, in his compulsiveness to stay ahead of the virus, Johnson was tested for antibodies in the early days of the pandemic. He tested positive, which he believed gave him a “data base," but now understands the testing at that time may not have been accurate.
So Johnson is the first NASCAR driver to test positive — the last one anyone would have expected — and understands that it gives him an opportunity to educate others on COVID-19.
In his 19th and final full season, Johnson has found his voice and has been a leader for the industry on and off the track. Although he has always been a philanthropist — the Jimmie Johnson Foundation has donated nearly $8 million to K-12 schools and other organizations — the laid-back Californian morphed into a polished corporate spokesman as he racked up 83 Cup wins and tied Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with those seven championships.
But Johnson rarely said anything controversial and stayed on message, careful not to wade into topics that could cause him problems with his sponsors or his team. Now 44, he hs reversed course and taken a very prominent role in NASCAR's push for diversity.
Johnson was one of the leaders of a video drivers made during the nationwide unrest following George Floyd's death while in the custody of Minneapolis police. When the industry learned a noose had been found last month in Bubba Wallace's garage at Talladega, it was Johnson who said on a group chat among his peers that he planned to stand alongside Wallace during the national anthem. His idea spawned an unforgettable moment of unity in which all the drivers pushed Wallace's car to the front of the grid and stood behind him.
On Monday, after President Donald Trump tweeted Wallace should apologize for a “hoax," Johnson posted on Twitter the blue square with Wallace's No. 43 that had been used during an #IStandWithBubba campaign after the noose was found.
Johnson was one of only two active Cup drivers to react to Trump's tweet. The other, rookie Tyler Reddick, deleted his reply even though it supported Wallace.
“This is not a position I thought I’d find myself in,” Johnson admitted. “I’ve been in the sport a long time and have won many championships and offered my opinion and advice through the years, but in the last few months ... I’ve found myself in a position that people are paying much more attention to what I have to say.”
So what changed? Johnson said he has felt the responsibility to speak up “for a long time” but only recognized “in the last two or three months how my voice has carried much further.”
It comes as Johnson is working on his post-career plans, which he hopes includes IndyCar and sports car races as well as triathlons, cycling events and perhaps another marathon.
To Johnson, testing positive has only given him another message to spread.
“Hopefully my voice is still carrying the same message of listen, learn, understand, be kind, open your heart ... and where I sit now, it’s hopefully to keep your guard up,” Johnson said. "We thought we were very diligent in our household. And it still found a way in.
"I can also expand on the fact that testing takes many days to get your results. And if you do feel symptomatic, do the right thing and just stay in. Bring your family indoors.”