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Jimmie Johnson's NASCAR retirement is uncertain, but he's all-in on being an iRacing pro

Alex Andrejev, The Charlotte Observer on

Published in Auto Racing

The NASCAR world celebrated the No. 48 driver's 20-year career Wednesday, but the old dog is still learning new tricks.

NASCAR deemed April 4, or 4/8, "Jimmie Johnson Day" in honor of the Hendrick Motorsports driver. But Johnson, who was set to retire from full-time racing after this season, didn't field many questions about his legacy during a conference call with reporters Thursday morning.

Instead, media members were more curious about Johnson's future plans and the iRacing movement that has consumed most of his time since the NASCAR season was put on pause due to COVID-19. The veteran driver emphasized that his retirement at the season's end remains as uncertain as the current Cup Series schedule.

"I really don't have an answer just yet," Johnson said. "I don't know what's going to happen in the coming months, and if we'll be able to run the full season or not."

"I feel like I set out to make 2020 my last full-time year," Johnson continued. "But I've always left the door open for other racing (with) NASCAR and abroad for the future, and I feel like I'm still pretty much on that path."

While his retirement plans remain uncertain, the seven-time Cup champion is committing to learning iRacing for NASCAR's current series, the eNASCAR Pro Invitational, which is taking place on virtual speedways in lieu of official races. Johnson, 44, said he practiced on the sim rig for around five hours daily during the first two weeks of the series to get up to speed. He said he even hired a sim racing coach to work with him at night after putting his two daughters, Genevieve (10) and Lydia (7), to bed.

"I felt like I didn't sleep for two weeks, honestly," Johnson said. "Working around the clock and (spending) a lot of the time at night on the sim rig."

The seriousness with which Johnson has approached iRacing -- as a veteran driver with less experience on the virtual tracks than some younger competitors -- is a contrast to the way other drivers have handled the new iRacing events. Last week, for example, Bubba Wallace quit mid-race at virtual Bristol Motor Speedway after making contact with Clint Bowyer. Although Wallace emphasized on Twitter that he saw the series as a "video game", the move had real-world consequences. One of Wallace's team partners, pain-relief ointment brand Blue-Emu, dropped its sponsorship after Wallace quit the race.

Meanwhile, Johnson's steadier approach has also had real-world consequences in that he's improved from his initial 31st place finish at virtual Homestead-Miami to a 19th place finish at virtual Texas Motor Speedway the following week. Most recently, he finished 21st on the short track at virtual Bristol.

 

"We're trying to figure out how to create value and how to deliver for our partners," Johnson said. "It's created an interesting environment and everybody handles it a bit differently."

Not only does Johnson see sim racing as an opportunity to maintain and develop team partnerships, but he's also using the experience to set himself up for real races in the future, particularly through his participation in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge.

"If I am able to find an opportunity in the IndyCar world in the future, I'm getting some reps on track," Johnson said. "So that's a little rewarding and makes me feel good about the time that I'm putting in."

He also said that his biggest concern with the coronavirus impacting the NASCAR schedule during his planned retirement year didn't have to do with fulfilling a personal goal. Instead, he said he wanted to provide his fans with an opportunity to see him racing. One way or another, Johnson is finding a way to do that, and the effort is never lacking.

"I'm not fast enough in iRacing yet to run up front for the TV times," Johnson said. "So trying to be an in-race reporter or a part of spectacular crashes seems to be the only way I find myself on television right now."

(c)2020 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)

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