When seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson retired from the series in 2020, it seemed unlikely that fans would ever see him back in a Cup car.
Sure, the NASCAR legend openly admitted that he still wanted to race from time to time post-retirement, but he chose to fill that void with a two-year stint in IndyCar and select races in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
Following a rather lackluster two years which saw him score only one top five and two top 10 finishes in IndyCar, Johnson purchased an ownership stake in Petty GMS Motorsports, now known as Legacy Motor Club, and announced his part-time return to the Cup Series as the driver of the No. 84 Chevrolet.
Regardless of how much racing was actually in store for the 83-time winner, many saw it as a chance for him to right the wrongs of his winless final three season of full-time Cup Series competition, when he missed the playoffs twice.
Simultaneously, many also saw it as an ill-fated attempt at reviving past glories, one which could lead him to tarnish his own legacy.
Through Jimmie Johnson’s first three starts of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season, it’s safe to say that the doubters have been proven right.
In the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway, the EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas (COTA), and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Johnson finished in 31st, 38th, and 37th place, respectively. His latter two results were also last place finishes, while all three of his outings have resulted in DNFs.
Not all of it has necessarily been his fault, though.
At Daytona, Johnson ran in the top five at different points of the race before getting caught in a racing-ending pileup in overtime. At COTA, he couldn’t even get a lap in before being taken out by a spinning Ty Dillon.
But on the other side of the coin, some of it is down to him.
At COTA, his poor qualifying effort put him in position to be taken out, while a turn two spin and clumsy crash with teammate Noah Gragson caused him to retire at Charlotte. His Coca-Cola 600 clash with the No. 42 Chevrolet saw him squeeze Gragson into the turn two wall and send both of them into a spin, ending their days early.
Could Jimmie Johnson’s 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season damage his legacy as a motorsport great?
It is understandable why the narrative surrounding Johnson may be shifting. Recency bias is part of not just sport but human nature, as it consists of moments in time that people remember best since they took place most recently.
Aside from the 2023 season, Johnson’s last five and a half years in NASCAR, IndyCar, and even IMSA, to an extent, have been well below the sky-high standard he set for himself for the 15-plus years before that.
Some of those struggles have been down to him running in foreign machinery. Before 2021, Johnson had never raced an open-wheel car, nor had he driven at most of the circuits IndyCar visited. Similarly, before the 2023 Daytona 500, he had never raced the Next Gen car, having only driven it at Phoenix Raceway in a preseason test.
A lot of his struggles, however, are down to the fact that he is now 47 years old and has been on the decline. But what people fail to understand is why he continues to race.
Jimmie Johnson’s 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season is not about winning races and chasing records.
Instead, it is about satisfying his hunger for competition, having fun, and strengthening his new business venture. In the races he runs this season, which currently stands at four with a chance to slightly expand, he is out to help his Legacy Motor Club operation while continuing to do what he loves most.
No other team has quite the luxury that this squad does: an owner who drives the team’s cars part-time in racing conditions and is able to influence car development and setup, pass on his experience to the team’s two younger drivers, and identify deficiencies in the organization.
Should he be held accountable for his performances, good or bad? Of course he should; he is the one driving the car, and he is also the one steering the ship for the entire operation. But is it fair to look down on his entire career because of subpar seasons in his mid-to-late 40s? That’s a different story.
Few look down on Richard Petty for the eight straight winless seasons that wrapped up his career. They look at the 200 wins and seven championships he scored beforehand, which gave him his legendary nickname, “The King”.
Few look down on Formula 1 legend Michael Schumacher because of his failed return from 2009 to 2012, which saw him only score a single podium finish. They look at his 91 Grand Prix victories, his seven world championships, and the work ethic he had to achieve perfection.
The verdict on Johnson shouldn’t be any different.
The definition of a legacy is “The long-lasting impact of particular events or actions that took place in the past, or in a person’s life”.
The legacy of Jimmie Johnson is one of a fierce talent behind the wheel, an incredible athlete with an unbeatable fitness record and work ethic, and most importantly, a great person and family man.
That’s all that should matter once he hangs his helmet up for good, regardless of how his driving career may end.