Johnson: Open-wheel in plans, but not done with NASCAR

Seven-time NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson has admitted that the McLaren Formula 1 test at Bahrain ensured his interest in racing an open-wheel car remains strong, but said he’s still determined to return to victory lane in NASCAR.

Johnson appeared on the 273rd edition of the Dale Jr. Download podcast and admitted that the “eye-opening” experience of testing a McLaren F1 car last November in a ride-swap with Fernando Alonso, had switched his post-NASCAR ideas from off-road racing back to road course racing in open-wheel or sportscars. Johnson has expressed an eagerness to try road courses in an IndyCar and his hero, Indy car legend Rick Mears, has said he believes Johnson can show well “if the fire is lit”.

Johnson, whose current NASCAR contract with Hendrick Motorsport ends at the close of next season, told Earnhardt: “Prior to driving that Formula 1 car, I felt like some more off-road racing, going back to my roots would be fun… Those vehicles have evolved so much, I’d like to get back in one. They used to be automatic transmission but now they’re manual transmissions, much more power to the tires, lighter vehicles. Really cool trucks.

“But since I drove that Formula 1 car… That experience is unlike any experience I could describe. That was so much fun.

“So, I don’t know – we’ll see when I pull the plug [on NASCAR], but I’d love to go do some kind of road racing series – [maybe] in an IndyCar, and certainly look at any type of sportscar racing. That was a really neat experience that I’d like to do more of.”

Earnhardt asked former teammate Johnson how he rated himself as a roadcourse racer. Johnson, who has twice finished runner-up in the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, admitted: “I don’t feel like it’s my strong suit but … when I’ve been in cars with more downforce and more braking ability, I’ve been much more competitive, like, when I’ve been in sportscars.

“I just think my driving style isn’t ideal for a big heavy Cup car. And hopping in that Formula 1 car and having that chance to match Fernando’s lap time as I did in Bahrain, was an eye-opening experience for me. Like maybe on a road course, those [types of car] fit my style a little bit more.”

The “fire’s way too intense” to quit NASCAR yet

Despite his talk of post-NASCAR endeavors, Johnson appeared to lay to rest any theories that his current struggles have anything to do with lack of motivation. Johnson is tied with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. for most championships in NASCAR Cup Series history (seven), has 83 wins (sixth on the all-time win list), and has scored multiple victories in NASCAR’s most prestigious races – the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Brickyard 400.

However, the Hendrick star who turns 44 this month has not won since June 2017, and Earnhardt asked him where the motivation came from to keep trying to end the win drought when he’s achieved everything a NASCAR driver could dream of.

“Really, it’s just my internal fire to compete, who I am,” replied Johnson. “And this is also a similar place to where I was prior to all my success at Hendrick: I had to fight.

“I can’t tell you how close I was to being unemployed through my journey as a young driver coming up. Thankfully Chevrolet had my back and was trying to support me, but the manufacturers and how expensive racing is, there’s only so much they can do. I was very fortunate to have people believe in me and see my work ethic and my hunger and give me that next opportunity. And then also people mentored me, that had credibility and helped with that momentum that it takes for a driver to get somewhere.

“So I’ve been here before and I’ve worked through it, so to me there’s not this black hole – ‘Oh, I’m not going to figure it out.’ Hell no, I’ve been here before. I know what’s going on within my team, I know what I’m capable of, I’ve been here before and the fire is there. I just… I’m not done yet. That’s really what it’s about.”

Nonetheless, Earnhardt asked, “How much more do you want?” and Johnson replied: “I don’t know. That’s a question that’s been asked a lot and I think in the next four to six months, I’m sure Mr. Hendrick’s going to be pushing on me for an answer!

“So I know that’s out there, but if I’m forced to make a decision, I’m choosing more years. I’m not done yet. That fire’s way too intense.

“Another interesting thing is, along the way I’ve been able to build friendships with Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett, yourself, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart… and you guys may not have noticed but I’ve asked questions, just trying to gauge how I feel about the years that I have left, and what signs I need to have to step down. And it’s all led to, ‘Don’t give up, don’t stop, don’t quit until you feel fully satisfied…’

“One element that will weigh into it and be a very important part of it is what my kids and my wife think. I’ve been very selfish for a long time, going down my road in racing. I know where my wife stands but as my kids grow older and have more of an opinion on where they want Dad to be, that’ll factor in for sure.”

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