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Jimmie Johnson: 'This is not retirement from racing'

You’re going to see Jimmie Johnson racing after the 2020 season.

The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion announced Wednesday that he’d race one more season full-time at NASCAR’s top level before leaving the No. 48 car when his contract is up at the end of 2020.

But Johnson, 44, said Thursday that he wants to continue racing after his time at the wheel of the No. 48 car is over. Even as a fill-in for Hendrick Motorsports like Jeff Gordon in 2016 if necessary. Though Johnson did rule out one specific type of racing that he’s not going to be trying in the future.

“This is not retirement from racing,” Johnson said. “This is stepping down from the 38 weeks a year that it takes to be competitive and the time that goes with that. I would come back and drive Cup cars for [team owner Rick Hendrick]. Without a doubt. All options are open, honestly. Except IndyCar on fast ovals.”

Johnson had once entertained the idea of racing in the Indianapolis 500. But that’s been off the table since he and his wife Chandra started a family. And it’s not going back on the table when Johnson is done with his Cup career, though he’s previously left the door open to racing in a road course race in the open-wheel series.

‘The feeling became real’ in October

With Johnson’s contract up at the end of 2020, the decision to extend his contract with Hendrick or retire quickly approached throughout the 2019 season. While Johnson had publicly said throughout the season that he didn’t have a timeline on a retirement decision, he said Thursday that the “feeling became real” in October.

“I feel very, very good about my decision,” Johnson said. “It’s time. It showed up. And I feel so fortunate that it showed up to me in that way.”

He said he told Hendrick that he was stepping away a few weeks ago.

“It was three weeks ago, something like that. At his house,” Johnson said. “And on a funny note I did mention to him I think twice, maybe three times, that 2020 was going to be my last year. And he never reacted. And then the fourth time he said, ‘I guess you’re serious about this, aren’t you?’”

Hendrick said he wanted to make the day about Johnson when he was asked about potential replacements for his seven-time champion. It seems likely that Hendrick could hire a driver from another team to replace Johnson in 2021.

Johnson also noted that 20 years has “also felt like a nice little round number to be a full-time driver.” He made his Cup Series debut in 2001.

Recent struggles didn’t impact decision

Johnson has 83 Cup Series wins in addition to his seven titles. But he hasn’t won a race since he was in victory lane at Dover in June of 2017. It’s a 95-race winless stretch. He missed the playoffs for the first time in his career in 2019.

But that winless streak and that playoff miss didn’t play a role in the decision to retire.

“Truthfully it’s had very little implication on me making the decision,” Johnson said. “There’s been a feeling I’ve been waiting for and getting older and later in my career. I’ve just been aware of it and I’ve been waiting for that feeling to show up. I didn’t know when and I didn’t know why but it did. And in my heart of hearts it was not because of the struggles of the last couple of years.

“Life’s a journey as we all know. Motorsports is a ruthless sport and it doesn’t matter who you are, it can eat you up and spit you out the other side. And I feel so fortunate that I had this magical moment for so many years. Five in a row, the seven championships that we had.”

Johnson also said that his goal is to not simply get back to the playoffs in 2020. He wants to get to the final round at Homestead with a shot at a record-breaking eighth title.

“The outlook for next year is absolutely to win races and be in that final four. And if you’re in that championship four at Phoenix now, you’ve got a shot. And that is absolutely the goal for next year. I have the fire, our team is getting stronger, I think Hendrick Motorsports as a whole we’ve had a great evolution through the course of 2019. We have some new things coming our way for 2020.

And just pulling back and looking at the opportunity this company has in 2020 and myself, with it being my final full-time year, that’s a special opportunity.”

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports

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