CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jimmie Johnson, a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series season champion and an all-around Everyman, has added elementary home school teacher to his résumé.
The sports stoppage for the coronavirus pandemic has thrown a red flag on Johnson's farewell tour. He had planned a final season of running a full NASCAR schedule, but so far that has consisted of just four races.
Amid all the uncertainty, Johnson doesn't know when he'll be back in his beloved Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet.
NASCAR is publicly targeting a May 9 return at Virginia's Martinsville Speedway, privately holding its breath for a May 24 resumption at the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Spedway and vowing only to complete the entire 36-race points schedule.
In the meantime, Johnson teaches his two daughters' daily school lessons, continues his fanatical fitness routine, spends hours upon hours in his racing simulator and waits to see how his pending retirement plan goes.
"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," Johnson said. "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 in NASCAR and abroad for the future.
"I feel like I am still pretty much on that path. I am hopeful that we get our full year in, and we can get back going in a month or so and that I can run the season to its entirety. I really don't have an answer — it's up in the air just as so much is in the world."
This 19th season was supposed to be his last as a full-time driver for Hendrick because Johnson, now 44 and a father of two active young girls, doesn't want to live in a motorhome at tracks across the country 38 weekends a year. Johnson wanted to shift his racing to focus on a bucket list of sorts — the kind of schedule two-time Formula One season champion Fernando Alonso, a new friend, has created.
This unconventional route works for drivers who still have the skills and ability to compete but are exhausted from their full-time jobs. NASCAR has the longest schedule in professional sports, and participants average three nights a week (the weekend) away from home during a season that takes up most of 10 months of the year.
Johnson, already a veteran distance runner, figured he would transition to the kind of competitions he could never do as a NASCAR racer: Besides triathlons and cycling pursuits, Johnson was locked in on trying IndyCar races and had a test scheduled for this month that was canceled because of the pandemic.
Now he's adapting to what he described as the most free time he's ever had as an adult, and he is eager to get back to work. Johnson was off to a decent start before the season was suspended; through four races he had a pair of top-10 finishes and was fifth in the points standings.
It's considered impressive these days for Johnson, who has slogged through a winless streak that dates to June 4, 2017. He had unburdened himself this year of the internal pressure to win a record-breaking eighth championship that would separate him from Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, the Hall of Famers he shares the mark with. And he is far more comfortable in the new Camaro that General Motors is racing this year.
Final or not, this year could ultimately be wasted for Johnson where racing is concerned. But he sympathizes most with the fans who paid to attend what they thought would be his final races at certain tracks.
"I know where I am in terms of fulfillment with the career I've had. Sure, I want to be on track, and sure, I want to go to these places a final time," he said. "But I feel more for the fans who aren't having that opportunity now than I long for myself to experience it and to be there."
He also recognizes the sports shutdown is minor when put in perspective to the enormous toll the pandemic has had worldwide.
"This is way bigger than me," he said. "Way bigger than what was going to be my final time at these tracks. There are so many other issues at hand to be concerned with. It's been all about others rather than how this has affected me personally."