The last leg of the West Coast Swing is always a special one for Jimmie Johnson: it’s the site of his first win and his hometown track, where he also happens to be the most successful driver in the track’s history. But this year, Johnson took his family back to where it all began…
“It’s fun to be back home. After Phoenix, we flew to San Diego and kind of started a little West Coast family trip heading up the coastline and hit Legoland and the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and just various places. So, it’s been fun. I took my kids out to El Cajon and showed them where I grew up and granted Lydia is three and probably will never remember it, but it was just fun to kind of be back home, show my family around. My oldest (Evie) has been there to my hometown, but my youngest, it’s her first real trip through there. I don’t know, just fun to go back and see the spots and places and even talk to a few old friends. And as a parent I know that I want my kids to appreciate what they have and work hard for the world they want to create for themselves. And my kids are starting a heck of a lot better off than I did from that perspective. I grew up in a house full of love and understanding and highly motivated parents that pushed me to chase my dreams and I want to give that to my children as well, obviously. But, to take them back and show them the street I played on and I even saw some of my old bicycle jumps that are kind of eroded away now on the side of the road up in Crest (California) where I grew up. They are young, but I feel like they need to see that and to hear my daughter Genevie’s comments about the house and how small it was and things like that, it’s like ‘yep that is why we are here.’ Certainly, from their stand point it was great to show them around, but for me it’s just such a nice reminder to go back. I do shake my head and find it hard to believe that is where I came from and that I made it to where I am, but more than anything the memories and it’s just wild how the old memories and stories come up. I just pepper my wife with these stories and she is like ‘yeah, I’ve heard that 15-times and that one 20-times’, so it is just fun to open up the memory bank and experience those things again.”
“And then to come to this race track where I won my first event, I guess that photo is right there (points in the media center) to remind me of it, which is pretty cool. It’s just fun to be back. I really enjoy racing here. We have all watched this track age and turn into a facility that puts on one heck of a show. I’m excited to be back.”
In a nod to their southern California neighbor’s Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Auto Club Speedway has a tradition of their race winners leaving the mark on their own Walk of Fame. Nobody has more footprints or handprints on the walk than Johnson, with a record six wins at his hometown track.
If you had told Johnson what his future had in store after that first ceremonial induction into the Walk of Fame, he probably would have found a nice way to let you know how crazy you were…
“If any driver could script their first win and the circumstances I think they would choose a path similar to what I went through. It was my 13th start ever in the Cup Series, 10th start of that season, running my home track. You just couldn’t script it any better and when I look back, I’m still amazed that it turned out that way. I’m still amazed that it has turned out how it has to start with. When I go back mentally to that point in my life, I just wanted to win a race. I’ve said it many times and I’m very serious about this with Jeff (Gordon) winning the championship the year before and they gave me his inventory of cars and equipment, I felt like I had to win. Deep down in my heart I felt like Lowe’s signed up because they felt that I could win. There was this pressure, granted it was early in the year, but standing there climbing out of that car and the minutes that followed that the relief that came off of my shoulders knowing that I could win. And I had only won one Busch race prior to that and all the conversation then was ‘what the heck is Jeff Gordon and Rick Hendrick thinking?’ Who is this guy? I was very relieved and that triple chin smile is more about the relief of all this pressure that I had put on myself to win and I was able to do it very early at my home track.”
In case you have forgotten, or just can’t get enough of last year’s heroic win, here’s a flashback to the 2016 Auto Club 400 – a race where “Superman” surpassed “The Intimidator.” On Friday, Johnson added yet another signature to the Walk of Fame…
The 2017 season hasn’t started off as well as Johnson and the No. 48 crew would like, but if last year taught us anything, never count out Team Lowe’s:
“Sixteen years, 80 wins, and seven championships and people want to question us? I mean come on. I know it’s not you. You can’t be on top forever. I think that we do have some work to do, especially on the short run. We haven’t executed as cleanly as we need to. Daytona, we are running second or third and get crashed, last week we were a good top five, maybe top three car on the long run, but finished with some short restarts that was our weak point. Yeah, sure, absolutely we have work to do, but nobody should panic.”
For Jimmie, his hometown is a perfect place to turn it around. If past success doesn’t make Jimmie’s right foot any heavier, hometown pride certainly will:
“(I) have so much pride for my years here and very proud every time I step across that stage, even if it’s mispronounced, I hear that I’ve from El Cajon, California. So, I take a lot of pride in that and when I do come home and I am around I can sense and feel the pride that people have for me. The championships I’ve been able to bring to the city, so on my end, yeah, absolutely, I’m very proud to have been and hopefully continue to provide San Diegans with a big smile on a Sunday afternoon.”
Tune into the Auto Club 400 at 3:30 PM ET on FOX and hopefully when the checkered flag falls, Johnson, his crew, San Diego, and you, will all be smiling big.