Jimmie Johnson ends an amazing chapter in NASCAR history one week from today.

But the book on his racing career is far from complete.

“I’m very excited to see what comes next … and beyond that,” Johnson said last week in a telephone interview. “I can see a time in the future where my daughters and I might be driving a UTV or some kind of a vehicle in an off-road race. You never know.”

Only Johnson did know … or seemed to, almost 3½ decades ago when he attended “Career Day” at Crest Elementary in a motocross uniform.

“I told the teacher I was going to be a professional racer,” he recalled years later on a visit to his first school. “Remember ‘Christmas Story?’<TH>” Johnson recalled while looking over the playground. “It was one of those ‘You’ll shoot your eye out moments.’<TH>”

Johnson was at Crest Elementary in the spring of 2007, months after winning the first of his record-equaling seven NASCAR championships. His voice broke as he was speaking with kids with whom he connected. He was teary-eyed. And he remembered that visit in last week’s conversation.

“Memories came pouring in when I stood there in my old classroom,” Johnson recalled. “Some of my earliest teachers were there. From the first through the sixth grades, the school ground of Crest Elementary was my playground. I spent so much time there.

“There’s still a connection. It is not a posh neighborhood. I ascended from a lower middle-class family. I had big dreams. I’d ride around the canyons near the playground and dream. When I returned, all those memories came back. I met a little boy who dreamed of racing just like I did when I was there. He had dirty hands and a hole in his shirt just like I did when I was his age. Returning got to me.”

Jimmie Johnson is now 45. He is a millionaire many times over with <FZ,1,0,21>homes in Charlotte, N.C., and Aspen, Colo., and an apartment in New York City. He flies the country on a private jet.

And he is walking away from his full-time — and very demanding — year-round commitment to NASCAR so that he can pursue other racing interests in and out of cars while spending more time with his family — wife Chandra and daughters Genevieve and Lydia.

The questions asked most often are “why now?” and “what’s next?”

“First and foremost, it’s just the right time,” Johnson said of the decision announced a year ago to end his full-time NASCAR career with the final race of 2020, next Sunday in suburban Phoenix. “I’ve been at this pace in NASCAR for 21 straight years. It dictates your life. That’s not a complaint, because it is a great life and a great, competitive series.

“I just want some time. I want to drive new and different cars and see some new tracks. A year ago at this time, it was not in my head to go IndyCar racing. And I had no idea that my final season would be the year of COVID-19.”

The race Johnson missed after a positive COVID-19 test probably kept him from reaching the playoffs. It also meant his farewell tour was raced before empty stands. But Johnson said there was no turning back from his decision to leave NASCAR.

“There are no regrets and no thoughts of another season because of how COVID-19 impacted this season,” Johnson said. “I knew this was the last year I could give 100 percent. When I cleared that hurdle last fall and made the announcement, there was no turning back.

“On a personal note, what most bummed me out is my family. They couldn’t share this final season with me. They haven’t seen a race since Fontana (March 1). They can’t go where I go. We go to tracks in a bubble.”

Which also means the fans haven’t been there to celebrate one of the greatest careers in NASCAR history.

“There’s two sides to that,” Johnson said. “I would have loved to be able to say ‘Thanks’ to the fans around the country for a final time. But I’d also have been uneasy being cheered during a last-lap-type tour.”

Besides, Johnson is not done … maybe not even with NASCAR.

Johnson has signed to race 13 road-course races in the 2021 IndyCar Series for Chip Ganassi Racing. That schedule does not include the Indianapolis 500.

“The IndyCar Series was my goal when I first started racing on four wheels; that’s the direction I was headed. Racing in the Long Beach Grand Prix has always been high on my list. I have fond memories of going to that event when I was a kid. For a while, my career path was to IndyCars.”

But IndyCars aren’t the only events on Johnson’s bucket list.

“I have to be realistic at my age,” Johnson said. “I want to return to sports cars and race in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. I’ve actually been part of a team that finished second in that race. And in 2022, there will be world-wide uniform rules in sports car racing. I’d love to drive in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and that could happen with Ganassi.

“There are tracks that I want to run like Le Mans, Road America, Spa and Monaco, even if it is in a Vintage Car race. There’s a chance to get back into off-road racing, I’d love to return to where my career was rooted.”

Johnson’s vista is unlimited. Remember, he has tested in a Formula One car — although he’d be a senior citizen in a true Grand Prix.

“I’d like to drive 15 races a year,” said Johnson

And that could include the occasional NASCAR race. The Ganassi team he is aligning with is a leading organization in IndyCar, sports cars and NASCAR.

“That possibility already has been discussed,” said Johnson. “There will be opportunities. It’s going to be when Chip has an extra car available for a certain targeted race. Can’t say when, can’t say where, but I’m not saying never.”

Not all the races on Johnson’s bucket list are in cars. Johnson is a true athlete. He’s already competed in the Boston Marathon as well as mountain bike races in Colorado.

“Because we spend time in New York, I’d love to run in the New York City Marathon,” said Johnson. “I’d love to do the Colorado 100-mile mountain bike race. The family is planning some time abroad. I want to pedal up some of the big climbs you see in the Tour d’France. I don’t have it totally dialed in yet.”

Although he is retiring from a full-time NASCAR commitment, Johnson said his family’s main home will remain in Charlotte. “The family roots are in Charlotte,” said Johnson. “Things are going so very well for our daughters in Charlotte. I’ve lived in Charlotte longer than I lived in San Diego County.”

But San Diego remains close to the driver’s heart. Since its inception in 2006, the Jimmie Johnson Foundation has spent more than $6 million supporting educational programs in San Diego County. He also teamed with Habitat for Humanity to build three homes in El Cajon.

“I’ll always be connected to the San Diego area, particularly the El Cajon area,” said Johnson. “I’ve always said there’s been a misunderstanding of how I got here. The Johnsons worked hard.”

Johnson brings his family to San Diego at least once a year.

“The first stop is the beach,” he said. “Then we shoot out to El Cajon … Second Street … Los Panchos No. 6 off Greenfield … then head up the hill to Crest. My aunt still lives there. We drive past where my parents’ house was, past my aunt’s house to Crest Elementary. We do the same thing with Channy’s home in Oklahoma. We want the girls to know where we started.”

Johnson said he is still in awe of how his life played out.

“Without a doubt, I still pinch myself and think ‘Wow,’<TH>” he said. “When I started on dirt bikes, NASCAR couldn’t have been farther away. There were so many points along the way where things broke right. Some were people I met. Some were races I won.”

But there did come a moment when Johnson knew, “I can do this.”

“There were a lot of steppingstones along the way,” said Johnson. “But it was the Atlanta race during my rookie year in 2002. I ran in the top five all day long. I remember right there that I felt I belonged and could compete. But it wasn’t until after my third championship season (2008) that I felt like a champion.”

By then, Johnson was on a roll.

Johnson was named The Associated Press’ Male Athlete of the Year in 2009. He was voted the American Driver of the Year five times. He became the only driver in NASCAR history to win five straight championships (2006-2010). And in 2016, Johnson joined Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as the only seven-time champions in NASCAR history.

Of course, the final years of Johnson’s NASCAR career haven’t gone according to plan. He hasn’t won a race since 2017 and faces the possibility of leaving the tour with a winless streak of 130 straight races.

But this year did produce one memorable high.

Johnson was among the first drivers to strongly back Bubba Wallace when the series’ only Black driver pushed NASCAR toward diversity and away from its White southern roots. Johnson is now a part of a movement that has grown into action.

“It’s tough to say where we go from here,” said Johnson. “We all have our own journey and points of view. As a father of two girls, gender equality is very close to me. It’s a big category, equality. I was just trying to be a friend to Bubba and my other Black friends.

“I was involved early in conversations with them. I assumed it was never as fair and equal as it needed to be. I was unaware of the depth. I’m very proud of standing with Bubba. I was there for just a friend first. Other friends of Bubba wanted to join. I wanted the message to have the longest length it could. It became a very broad and organic journey.

“Other guys joined in. We united in seeing it for what it is. Drivers, crew members, families. And when Richard Petty stood there with Bubba in front of it all, it was a big moment for sure.

“I’ve learned a lot over the last two decades,” Johnson said. “And I’m more excited about what lies ahead than what we’re leaving behind. It’s time to grow more and explore other things.”

No more week-after-week of NASCAR.

“It’s a great, extremely competitive series,” said Johnson. “It is filled with great drivers and people. But it is time for me to see what else is out there.”

10 milestone moments in Johnson’s 21 seasons

1. Short-course off-road truck race at Los Angeles Coliseum in 1992: After that race, the 16-year-old Johnson met Chevrolet racing executive Herb Fishel, who became a significant force in Johnson’s career.<EL,1>

2. SODA off-road championship race in 1995: After winning, Johnson signed contract with Herzog Motorsports that began in off-road trucks before moving to asphalt stock car racing in 1997 in the ASA Series. He remained with the Herzogs through 2001 in the secondary NASCAR Busch Series.<EL,1>

3. Busch Series Chicagoland Speedway win in 2001: Johnson had caught the eye of four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon in 2000. Gordon promoted Johnson to team owner Rick Hendrick after the Chicagoland win. Johnson received a four-race trial with Hendrick Motorsports, leading to a full-time ride in NASCAR’s premier series in 2002.

4. Daytona 500 pole in 2002: No, it wasn’t a race win. But taking the pole in the season opener and NASCAR’s premier race put Johnson on the map. He finished 15th in the race and a lap down. Winning the pole secured Johnson a spot in the Daytona 500, which was good because he crashed in his qualifying race and wouldn’t have made the field on points from the 2001 season.

5. Auto Club Speedway in Fontana in 2002: He won his first race in NASCAR’s premier division in just his 13th career start. The El Cajon native called Fontana “his home track.” Johnson tied the rookie record with three wins in 2002 and finished fifth in the final points standings, but Ryan Newman was voted Rookie of the Year.

6. Daytona 500 in 2006: Johnson’s first win in NASCAR’s classic race served as the springboard to the first of his seven NASCAR titles.

7. Martinsville 500 in 2006: Johnson was eighth in the standings going into the second race at Martinsville, which was the fifth-to-last race on the schedule. Johnson followed the win at Martinsville with four straight second-place finishes to claim his first title.

8. Wins at Bristol and Sonoma in 2010: The first of Johnson’s two wins on the .533-mile oval at Bristol, Tenn., came in his 17th start at the famed short track. His only win on the road course at Sonoma came later that season. Why are they important and linked? “The short track at Bristol and the Sonoma road course were always tough on me.”

9. Miami-Homestead in 2010: Johnson actually finished second to Carl Edwards in the race. But the results allowed him to clinch a fifth straight NASCAR championship, topping Cale Yarborough for the most consecutive titles. “Getting that record for consecutive titles was special in a lot of ways,” said Johnson.<EL,1>

10. Miami-Homestead in 2016: Johnson won the season finale to clinch his seventh championship, tying Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty for the most titles in NASCAR history. “That was the largest swing of emotions I had in my professional career,” Johnson said of the race. “I was buried for the majority of the race. But then everything swung my way late in the race and I won, the race and the seventh title. I went from lowest low to highest high.”

Center is a freelance writer.