Johnson isn’t racing full time anymore, but he’s not retiring

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A man walks into an airport, walks up to the giant board titled “Departures,” and with a packed bag at his side, looks upon the dozens of cities listed, knowing that he can board any single one of those airplanes headed to any destination of his choosing, no questions asked. A golden ticket. A passport to the world. A bucket list. A Genie Plus Lightning Lane with no restrictions. Use whatever metaphor you want. What it is, is a feeling of true freedom.

No, this is not about George Clooney in the closing scene of the 2009 Oscar-nominated film “Up in the Air.” It’s about another handsome, graying, legend-in-his-own-time who now finds himself standing in front of a blank itinerary that he can fill with whichever stops and stations that he has ever desired. But that’s not a roller bag in his hand. It’s a helmet.

“What I’m doing now, it’s about the experience,” Jimmie Johnson said Tuesday. “This allows me to open up the runway and gives me more time to experience this.”

On Monday, Johnson revealed that he was stepping away from full-time racing after two seasons — one part-time, one full-time — in the IndyCar Series. But, as the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion preached as he left stock car racing at the end of 2020, he doesn’t want to hear the word retirement. “I tried to retire once, and that didn’t work out,” the 47-year-old joked.

Geez, is he right about that.

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Since his final NASCAR start, a fifth-place finish in the Nov. 8, 2020, season finale, he has made 29 IndyCar starts, including 2022 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year honors, and ran another half-dozen in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar series, starting with a podium finish in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, his third runner-up effort in the race.

But for every race and series he has run, there are at least a handful of events and race cars that he wasn’t able to enter or drive because of a full-time IndyCar commitment that he repeatedly confessed this season was more than he had anticipated.

“Man, I’ve had racing friends from all over the world calling and saying, ‘You should come try this series I’ve been running in’ and it sounds so awesome,” Johnson explained one year ago, laughing. “But then when we hang up, I’m Googling that series because I’ve never even heard of it, and I’m like, ‘Oh man, that does look awesome!’ The freedom to maybe do that, that’s a gift. We all dream of living a bucket list, but no one ever gets to actually do that.”

Now he does.

He has openly and giddily described his time in the IndyCar paddock as one of the most enjoyable of his life. As frustrating as his learning curve could be, especially on road courses, that has been countered by the good vibes of being a part of what has always been an uncommonly friendly cul-de-sac experience of living in the IndyCar motorcoach lot.

“Jimmie could have walked into this paddock with his résumé pinned to his firesuit and been busy jetting to events and that would have been totally understandable,” six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon said of Johnson, his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate, in May. “But instead, he arrived as this humble, eager guy who fit right in and wanted to learn. He was one of us very quickly, and that’s a testament to him.”

As is that ringing telephone, with opportunities to compile a to-do list of racing that harks back to the old school career paths of A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and the hero of every kid who grew up like Johnson as a desert rat of Southern California and the Baja Peninsula: Parnelli Jones.

He talks of being uncomfortable and qualifying at the back of the grid and not winning races, and somehow makes it sound awesome. Johnson is a man who is playing with house money and knows it. Now he wants to take that blank check and start ticking off races and places.

With his decision to end full-time racing now official, the process of sewing the quilt of his future behind the wheel has started … as soon as he’s done with this weekend’s Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta.

“My timing is in a good spot, so we’ll see what the coming weeks bring.”

Johnson wants to race the 24 Hours of Le Mans, nearly impossible to do if one is running full time in IndyCar. It just so happens that NASCAR has been working on a “Garage 56” entry — a slot reserved for an innovative car that doesn’t have to abide by the competition’s regulations, but also is not classified in the results — for next year’s race and it’s being built by Hendrick Motorsports, where Johnson spent two decades and won all of those Cup Series titles.

He wants to return to the Indy 500, where he led two laps before crashing out late, but would also like to pair that with the Coca-Cola 600 for the Memorial Day Weekend Double, which has only been attempted by five racers and none since Kurt Busch did it eight years ago. He is still on great terms with Ganassi, who has raced in both series with legendary success and helped Tony Stewart do the Double in 2001. He’s also big pals with Justin Marks, who bought Ganassi’s Cup team, now Trackhouse Racing, and has created Project 91, designed specifically to bring big stars from other disciplines over for one-off runs in a top-shelf NASCAR Cup Series ride.

And he really, really wants more shots at the Rolex 24 and the 12 Hours of Sebring. He has been so close so many times at Daytona and finished seventh in his lone Sebring start in 2021.

Sports cars in Europe, dirt cars around the United States, a return to Baja, nothing is off the table — as long as it’s fun and as long as he’s able to get home to his family as much as possible. His two daughters are both in elementary school, with the oldest looking at middle school sooner than later. He glows as much if not more when talking about wife Chandra’s art gallery expansion as he does when describing racing at Indy. He speaks of living in Colorado and Charlotte and maybe one day the Johnson family spending some time living in Europe. For a kid who grew up in a trailer park in El Cajon, California, saying that kind of stuff aloud still feels like a through-the-looking-glass life.

The only dream better than living one’s career bucket list is being able to do that while also experiencing it with one’s family, not to mention being there as they live their own dreams — say, crushing it at a dance recital.

So, yes, this man, he is standing in front of that “Departures” board, but he is not alone. He has his family with him. He’d like for us to ride along with him, too.

“Carvana came up with this tagline, ‘No Finish Lines,'” Johnson says of the sponsor who has also told him it will have his back (and be embroidered on his chest) for whatever racing he wants to do next, wherever and whenever that might be. “Most people want to believe that’s a reality and would like to challenge themselves and start a second career and pivot in life, but that’s tough to do. I have discovered these last two years how many fans and racers identify with what I have done and want to do that in their lives.”

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