Physically, he is one of the survivors. The other day, he biked up to 10,500 feet in the mountains near his Colorado home, no problem at all.
On Sunday, he will crawl through the window of his Chevrolet at Kentucky Speedway and rejoin the chase, stopping his absent streak at one.
Mentally, Jimmie Johnson isn’t sure.
“It’s a big problem, it’s a pandemic,” Johnson said Friday. “I’ve learned that my challenges are watched closely by my kids (Genevieve and Lydia).
“How I deal with it is ultimately teaching them. It’s easy to get into a dark headspace. I’m trying so hard not to let that happen.”
Johnson is the most prominent athlete to test positive and miss time with COVID-19. His wife Chandra tested positive before he did, and he got his news on July 3.
He postponed two testing sessions with IndyCar teams, which, he hopes, is his next stop after he leaves NASCAR at the end of 2020. He hasn’t been to Victory Lane in 111 races now, or since Dover in the spring of 2017.
Before that, of course, Johnson was the unquestioned dominator at a time when NASCAR was the toughest to dominate.
Between 2006 and 2016, he won seven of 11 Cup titles. Only Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. have won seven, and no one had ever won four consecutive Cups until Johnson did in 2009, and then he added another in 2010.
Johnson has 83 victories, and from 2002 through 2019 he had made it to the start line 648 times out of 648.
Through it all, Johnson has been remarkably transparent about his hopes, dreams and doubts. Here, he got through the protocols and had two negative tests, but he couldn’t make Sunday’s race at Indianapolis.
“My first response was anger,” Johnson said. “I started cussing. I used all the words I knew and invented a few new ones.
“Saturday night was the most difficult time, trying to go to sleep, knowing I wouldn’t be in the car. Sunday morning wasn’t great. But we had a team conference call an hour and a half beforehand. It was crazy how it relaxed me. I was convinced I wasn’t going to watch, I couldn’t do it. But talking with Cliff and Justin, it let a lot of that go.”
Cliff Daniels is the crew chief for No. 48, and Justin Allgaier was the relief driver. Allgaier’s adventure lasted 12 laps, or until he got tangled up in a pit-road melee that retired him.
Johnson is in 15th place in the point standings, 46 points above the cutoff line for NASCAR’s playoffs. He never has won at Kentucky.
“I’m super-excited,” he said. “What a comeback story it would be, the COVID comeback.”
In reality, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin are ruling NASCAR as mercilessly as Johnson used to. Johnson is 44 and ready for open wheels and new roads.
He has talked with the Ganassi and McLaren operations about next year’s IndyCar circuit, which cries for his name recognition.
“As a kid, I can’t tell you how many times I hung on the fence at the Long Beach Grand Prix,” Johnson said. “Racing there is high on my list. So is Monterey, because I remember all those insane passes at the corkscrew there. There are a lot of cool circuits I haven’t had a chance to drive.”
NASCAR has handled virus life. It has run a furious catch-up schedule and, maybe, it is realizing it doesn’t need the expensive drudgery of qualifying.
The drivers came together behind Bubba Wallace when a crewman found a noose in his garage stall at Talladega. Johnson pointedly tweeted his support of Wallace last week.
“It was in response to what the President put out,” he confirmed.
Long past the final checkered flag of 2020, Johnson said he will be haunted by the “fear in my children’s eyes” and the “anger everywhere” he felt as he dealt with the vagaries of the pandemic.
For the first time in 19 years, he really does feel he’s running in circles.
“It’s a fact-based world, and not knowing everything drives me bananas,” Johnson said.
And the facts mutate with the virus.
“It shows no mercy, moves so quickly,” he said. “Once it’s in your bubble, I don’t know how you slow it down. My hands are so dry and cracking from washing them consistently. But things are staying open, we’re pushing forward. … We need to get more serious about that and protect ourselves.
“I fear we’re all going to have this at some point. I don’t see how we avoid that. I’m worried about that.”