Looking to go out a winner: Johnson owns Dover record book

Jimmie Johnson, shown last year at Dover, has not won a Cup Series race since June 5, 2017, a day when he added to his record number of victories – 11 – at the Monster Mile. NASCAR legends Richard Petty and Bobby Allison are second all-time at Dover, with both having won seven times at the track. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — The high banks of Dover International Speedway have always felt like home to seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson. It’s surprising there’s not a mailbox with his No. 48 on it sitting on the property in front of the racetrack.

Johnson will be making what could be the final two starts of his career at the track known as the “Monster Mile” in a Cup Series Drydene 311 doubleheader on Saturday and Sunday. He announced that he will be retiring from full-time Cup competition at the end of this season.

The 44-year-old driver from El Cajon, California, has not won a Cup Series race since June 5, 2017, a day when he added to his record number of victories – 11 – at Dover. NASCAR legends Richard Petty and Bobby Allison are second all-time at Dover, with both having won seven times at the track.

If anything can turn Johnson’s winless fortunes around, it’s a trip to an old one-mile, concrete friend.

“Maybe I’m a fool, but just every time I come here, I feel like this,” Johnson said. “This is just one of those places that an athlete finds a bond with a facility or a venue that they connect with.

“I don’t care if I have only three wheels on that thing, I still feel like I would have a shot to win. I just love (Dover).”

A replica of Johnson’s No. 48 Allied-sponsored Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet will be sitting in the right hand of the Miles the Monster statue outside the fourth turn at Dover this weekend. The monster appears to be either praising the driver for his domination at the track or preparing to give him a memorable sendoff.

“I can’t think of a better situation for my final year than going to the Monster Mile and having Miles stand up front, holding that 48 car,” Johnson said. “It’s my favorite track. Ally and Hendrick Motorsports are doing amazing things together. To go [to Dover] and hopefully win the race and experience the ultimate of highs would be really special.”

Johnson has driven the No. 48 Chevy for the entirety of his career. He co-holds the record with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. for most premier NASCAR series championships with seven and is the only driver to win five consecutive titles (2006-2010).

“Maybe I’m a fool, but just every time I come here, I feel like this,” said Johnson, shown signing an autograph for a fan during Dover race weekend last year. “This is just one of those places that an athlete finds a bond with a facility or a venue that they connect with.”

Johnson’s 83 career wins is tied with Cale Yarborough for sixth all-time and is tops among active drivers. The driver remembers that last win well, especially since it came at Dover more than three years ago.

Not only did Johnson join Petty and Darrell Waltrip by becoming only the third driver in NASCAR history to score 11 or more race wins at a single racetrack, but he also tied Yarborough, his childhood hero, on the Cup Series all-time wins list that day.

“It was a huge honor to tie (Yarborough) with three consecutive championships a few years back and then to be here at 83 wins and a day where things played out in such an awkward and weird fashion I’m just very happy that we’ve got it done,” Johnson said, after recording his last win at Dover. “To my 83 wins, I’m just so proud that it’s come with one owner, one sponsor, one manufacturer, one crew chief, one team, this is a very special journey this whole Hendrick Lowe’s team has been on.”

Things have not gone quite as smoothly for Johnson lately as they did for most of the first decade of the 2000s.

This year he even missed a race after testing positive for COVID-19. Perhaps his most memorable moment was bringing drivers together to show their support for Black NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace at Talladega, Alabama, earlier this season in the midst of the push for racial justice following the death of George Floyd at the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Johnson enters Dover’s race weekend coming off a fourth-place finish on the road course last Sunday at Daytona International Speedway and is 17th in the points standings, 25 points behind his teammate William Byron, who holds the 16th and final transfer spot into NASCAR’s playoffs with three regular season races remaining.

“Good job to everyone on my No. 48 team,” Johnson said, after Daytona. “I just lacked that rear grip at the end there. That was a really fun and a solid day, that’s what we needed and now we go to my favorite track – Dover.”

Jimmie Johnson takes a break with his crew at Dover last year. He enters this race weekend coming off a fourth-place finish on the road course last Sunday at Daytona International Speedway and is 17th in the points standings, 25 points behind his teammate William Byron, who holds the 16th and final transfer spot into NASCAR’s playoffs with three regular season races remaining.

One thing Johnson said he is missing in his final full-time season as a Cup Series driver is the interaction with the fans, who have mostly been forced to stay away from the racetracks in hopes of stopping the spread of the coronavirus.

“For me in my final year in a Cup car, I know where I am and I’m very content and fulfilled with the career I’ve had,” Johnson said. “There have been so many other issues at-hand to think about and be concerned with, that I haven’t thought much at all about it being my final year and what I might be missing for myself.

“It’s been more about others and more about the fans and what I see on my social thread, I see people that have been lifelong fans that are sad they don’t get to see me run. So, it’s been about others far more than it’s been about what affect this has had on me, personally.”

Johnson said there is something missing with no fans and no passion raining down on a weekly basis from the grandstands. Just like the majority of other races that have been held this season, there will be no fans allowed in the stands at Dover this weekend.

“I want fans in the stands. They deserve to be there. We want them there,” he said. “There’s an energy that comes with it. But we are in uncharted territory and we’re going to have to do things a little different than what we’re used to. And if we can get back to the track months before because fans aren’t in the stands, and provide our sport to millions and get people back to work and some normalcy going on in our country and our industry, I’m definitely for that.”

As the season winds down, stepping away from his NASCAR career will definitely come clearer into focus for the driver.

Adding to his record number of victories at Dover would give the driver a boost as he finishes off his remarkable NASCAR career.

“I feel like I set out to make 2020 my last full time year, but I’ve always left the door open for other racing and NASCAR and abroad for the future, and I feel like I’m still pretty much on that path,” Johnson said.