CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jimmie Johnson sat down next to Jeff Gordon at a NASCAR drivers' meeting in 2001 and asked him if he had time to offer any career advice.
Gordon, who went on to win the last of his four Cup Series titles that year, was so impressed with the fellow California native that he encouraged Rick Hendrick to start a team built specifically for Johnson, who was just 25 at the time.
It turned into one of the greatest hires in NASCAR history and nudged Gordon aside as the most dominant driver on the track. Now Johnson will follow Gordon and many other Cup Series superstars into retirement as the seven-time champion announced Wednesday he will retire from full-time competition after next season.
The 44-year-old Johnson joins an exodus of popular drivers that began when Gordon, a fellow Hendrick Motorsports driver, retired after the 2015 season. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — yet another Hendrick driver — Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray, Danica Patrick and Tony Stewart are among those who followed Gordon out the door.
Johnson, with more wins than any driver in his era, said in a video posted to his social media accounts and titled "#Chasing8 one final time" that next season will be his final attempt to win a record-breaking eighth season title. It will be his 19th season in the No. 48 Chevrolet.
"I am so thankful for 18 incredible years of racing in NASCAR," Johnson said in the black-and-white video of highlights from his career. "This sport has been good to me and allowed me to do something I truly love. I showed up chasing a dream and achieved more than I thought possible. I am looking forward to next season and celebrating what will be my last year as a full-time Cup driver. I know what this team is capable of, and I hope 2020 is one of the best yet."
Johnson scheduled a news conference Thursday at Hendrick Motorsports headquarters to discuss his decision.
"NASCAR history will always hold Jimmie Johnson in the highest regard, for his hard-charging success on the race track and the way he conducted himself as a champion off the track," NASCAR chairman Jim France said in a released statement. "This remarkable seven-time champion — through his competitive spirit, immense talent and sportsmanship — has made NASCAR a better sport."
Johnson has 83 Cup Series victories, tied with Cale Yarborough for sixth all-time and one win shy of both Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip. Two wins in 2020 would give him sole possession of fourth on the list, behind Gordon's mark of 93 trips to victory lane. Richard Petty's 200 wins tops the list, with David Pearson second at 105.
Johnson's seven titles are tied with Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt for most in the Cup Series, with Johnson's most recent title coming in 2016. His most impressive championship battle was likely title No. 2 during a 10-win 2007 season in an epic showdown with Gordon, who won back-to-back playoff races to take the points lead. Johnson reeled off four straight victories, though, and Gordon visited him in victory lane after the fourth win and bowed in concession.
The heady days are long gone with Johnson in a two-year slump. He most recently won a race in 2017 and had two different crew chief changes this season while missing the playoffs for the first time since the format began in 2004. He finished 18th in the final standings and 13th in Sunday's season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and he has just five top-five finishes combined this season and last.
Johnson has driven for Hendrick his entire Cup Series career and set a NASCAR record by winning five consecutive titles (2006-10). Other highlights include two Daytona 500 wins, four victories at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and track records with 11 wins at Dover International Speedway, nine at Martinsville Speedway and eight at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Johnson had two years remaining on his contract when new sponsor Ally signed on before this season to replace Lowe's, which had sponsored Johnson since his 2001 debut. Ally last month announced a three-year extension to sponsor the No. 48, but Johnson's future was not tied to the renewal.