For the first time of his NASCAR Cup Series career, Johnson had to watch a race from the sidelines. Johnson began his storied Cup career in 2002 and has made 663 consecutive starts following. The Saturday night before last weeks Brickyard 400, the seven-time series champion said was the hardest in dealing with the fact that he wasn’t racing on Sunday.
“It was the peak of emotional going with missing a race and the consecutive start streak coming to an end, not being in a car, my final year, all the things you can think of,” Johnson said of his frustrating weekend last week.
He was so down on Sunday morning, he was convinced that he wasn’t even going to watch. It was that painful for him. Then, when he was on the team call, his mind changed.
Johnson, still didn’t expect to be in a car this soon as he will return for Sunday’s Quaker State 400 (2:30 p.m. ET, FS1, PRN) at the Kentucky Speedway. He thought he’d be out for a while. Then, he tested on Monday to see if he even had the coronavirus anymore. The test came back negative. That made him honestly angry. How could he test positive three days ago and now negative? But, he was following the protocol and needed to test negative on Tuesday, because if so, he would be allowed to race again this weekend.
“I used every cuss word I knew of, and then I think invented a few new ones,” said Johnson on a zoom call on Friday. “It was just so weird, the anger, because I’ve been asymptomatic, so anger hits and then speculation in my mind, and it’s like, ‘Wait a second, nothing good can come of this. I don’t know, no one knows just time to move on.’ Then I got very excited and started looking at the fact that I’ve only missed one race, I’ve still got a good gap above the cutline, and then optimism about, ‘Man, I hope I get that second negative,’ and then I did.
“So, I feel like I’m more on the optimistic side of things and out of the dark head space I was in, and just moving in the right direction and looking forward.”
Johnson, says that he had literally no symptoms though this journey. His wife only had allergy like symptoms but that have since subsided.
“There are a lot of scenarios that can play out, and to go through them and try to form an opinion would just be speculating and at this point, I just don’t think that’s intelligent or smart to do,” Johnson continued. “I followed the protocol that NASCAR has in place. It’s the same protocol, from what I’ve seen watching ESPN, like all the other major sports have as well. I’ve been watching the numerous cases of positive tests take place, and I’ve also seen many examples of a double negative in more than a 24-hour time period take place, and then those athletes have been reinstated. So, it’s a science-based reinstatement process.
“I don’t know a lot, but I do know that I’ve had two negative tests, I’ve followed protocol, I’ve also had a release from my physician to put me back in the car. I feel great, I’m excited, and I’m ready to go.
“I’ve followed the protocol. It brings a lot of questions as to where I was in the journey of being positive and all that, so there’s a lot of speculation there. I don’t know those answers and believe me, I’m the most frustrated person out there, especially living in a world of facts as I do. To not have the facts drives me bananas, but I have followed protocol, and I’ve been reinstated, so that’s all I can speak to at this point.”
Still, he’s back. Johnson, said it was an interesting week and an emotional journey. Coming to grips with the reality of it all has been challenging but Johnson says he feels smarter and stronger today after this experience.
“I feel great,” Johnson said now. “I’m excited and ready to go. In my head of optimism, what a comeback story, the COVID comeback. It would be a special moment. I’ve always been highly motivated but it would be really cool to have great success Sunday or certainly in the near future with everything.”
If he can win at Kentucky, it would end a 100+ race winless drought at a track he’s never won at.
“Kentucky has probably been one of my top two or three most difficult tracks to compete at,” Johnson said. “I have mixed feeling for the place because when I first started at Hendrick Motorsports, I felt like I lived at that raceway doing testing for the team, getting in my laps and reps as a rookie coming into the sport.
“I have positive vibes from there, but my race experience there from the Busch Series days and even the Cup, has been demanding and tough. I hope to conquer the track from that personal standpoint and then clearly with what I’ve been though, my friend, family and fan base have been through, it’s be nice to leave there with a trophy.”