FONTANA, Calif. (AP) Jimmie Johnson’s sweater and baseball cap still bore the familiar Lowe’s branding while he walked around the garage Friday at Auto Club Speedway.
That gear will become collectors’ items later in the year. And when NASCAR visits his home track next season, the seven-time Cup champion will have to get new threads.
Yet Johnson remained publicly confident in his Hendrick Motorsports team and NASCAR’s larger future after learning about the impending loss of his longtime sponsor. After backing Johnson since his debut in 2001, Lowe’s is leaving Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet, and the decision is reverberating throughout a sport in which brand names are a vital part of the vocabulary.
”Of course, I wish that we could finish it out together, but that’s not the circumstances,” Johnson said in his first public comments on the split. ”But then to look forward, (we’re) very optimistic about the future. Myself and our race team, we have an opportunity we haven’t had before to go out and shop our deal, and to see what’s out there and what we can do from a branding standpoint for a new company.”
Indeed, the 42-year-old Johnson had nothing but warm praise for Lowe’s, whose logo and financial backing have been inextricable from his remarkable achievements as the greatest driver of his generation.
”It’s a business decision that Lowe’s needed to make, and that stuff happens,” Johnson said. ”If you look at how long they’ve been in the sport, I’m not sure there’s a sponsor that’s stuck around this long. So we’re very proud of their contributions to our industry.”
Lowe’s has been in the sport since 1995, and the home improvement chain was a beacon of stability in a sport scrambling to adjust to businesses’ shifting sponsorship habits.
”Marketing today has changed quite a bit,” he said. ”As much as we all want to think corporations look at a 10-, 15-, 20-year run for a marketing plan, they really do look year to year. … I don’t see it as a big issue at all.”
And while Lowe’s is going, Johnson made it clear he doesn’t intend to leave just yet.
Johnson’s contract with Hendrick runs through 2020, and ”the desire to keep racing is absolutely there,” Johnson said. ”Races, championships, being a part of this great sport of ours – I’m going to be around a while.”
When asked why he would want to start over with the process of finding and pleasing a new collection of sponsors, Johnson laughed.
”I guess maybe it’s the eternal optimist that I am,” he said. ”I have more to do, and I enjoy the process, and Hendrick is home, and retirement hasn’t been on my mind. I want to win. I want to win an eighth championship.”
At 26th in the points standings, Johnson has rarely been farther from that goal – but he also is at a good place to start work on that project this weekend.
Johnson is the winningest driver in Fontana history, claiming six of his 83 career Cup victories on the closest track to his San Diego-area hometown. He won his first career race on this weathered 2-mile oval in 2002, and he claimed his most recent surfboard trophy in 2016.
Yet Johnson has won only six races in the ensuing two years since that victory, a low mark by his formidable standards.
He also hasn’t won in 27 races since a victory at Dover last June, extending the longest winless skid of a Cup Series career that began in late 2001.
But Johnson flatly dismisses the idea that he would follow Lowe’s out of NASCAR next year.
”I’m the elder statesman in a company with three young guys,” Johnson said. ”If I was to have this be the end, it could put Hendrick Motorsports in a very awkward position. There are a lot of different ways I could look at it and say that it’s the absolute wrong time. But I guess at the end of the day, it’s really my desire to compete, and to compete at a high level. I’m not done yet.”
More AP auto racing: https://racing.ap.org