INDIANAPOLIS — Nothing about Jimmie Johnson’s final full season in NASCAR has been normal.
In search of his first victory in the Cup series since 2017, Johnson popped up at IndyCar’s Open Test during Daytona week, saw his sport go on pause for two months due to a pandemic and has been scheduled to test for two different IndyCar teams.
This weekend, he was vying to become just the third driver across any racing circuit to win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway five times, joining Jeff Gordon and Michael Schumacher.
But Friday’s news that he had contracted COVID-19, forcing him to miss possibly his final Brickyard 400 to be held Sunday at IMS, was an all-too-jarring reminder to the auto racing community of the present-day realities.
Health and loved ones must come before racing in the end — even for NASCAR’s Ironman who was the series’ active leader in consecutive starts at 663 entering this weekend, having never missed a race since the start of his Cup series career in 2002.
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"2020 has been interesting, there’s no doubt about it," Johnson said Saturday morning in a Zoom conference call with media. "I can be down and out about my situation, but if I turn on the news and see how this virus is impacting so many others, quickly I’m thankful that I’m asymptomatic and don’t have any other issues."
Friday morning, Johnson was on a conference call with racing media to discuss his recently-announced IndyCar test, scheduled for Wednesday on the IMS road course with Chip Ganassi Racing. It was his second such planned test this year, after he showed up at Circuit of the Americas in Austin in February as a guest of Arrow McLaren SP. Weeks later, he announced a planned test with the team in April at Barber, which was canceled due to a cease in testing while IndyCar sat idle for more than two months.
But his life took a shocking turn not long after that teleconference, as his wife Chandra received positive test results for COVID-19 after experiencing allergy-like symptoms earlier in the week. Johnson said that, out of an abundance of caution, his wife went to the hospital days ago to undergo a test. Johnson then scrambled to get a quick-results test himself and was told he was positive.
His two daughters, ages 9 and 6, have tested negative. Presently, the family is living in Aspen, Colo.
"My biggest concern right now is for my children," he said. "Of course we’re being very responsible right now, at home, trying to self-isolate, but at the same time, trying to parent. That’s a really tricky hurdle, trying to sort out right now, while managing their fears.
"They can’t come around Mom and Dad, and we’ve got to feed them and, at the same time, are concerned about passing on the virus. We’re trying to be as healthy as we can, but I’m heartbroken seeing the fears in their eyes watching them try to manage what’s going on right now."
He’s the first NASCAR driver to test positive for the virus after Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske both announced weeks ago that shop-based team members had tested positive.
In his place, Hendrick Motorsports announced Xfinity series driver Justin Allgaier will drive the No. 48 Chevy Camaro on Sunday on the IMS oval, and Johnson won’t be allowed to return to the cockpit until he’s cleared by a physician. NASCAR’s rules state a driver must by symptom-free and receive a pair of negative COVID-19 tests within a 24-hour span before they’re allowed to return to the grid.
Though the series hasn’t actively tested its drivers for the virus in the 11 races since its return May 17, participants have been undergoing frequent temperature checks when they enter race facilities.
The Hendrick Motorsports team also announced Friday one traveling member of Johnson’s team was directed to self-quarantine due to "close contact" with Johnson recently.
"Jimmie has handled this situation like the champion he is," team owner Rick Hendrick said in a press release Friday. "We’re relieved he isn’t showing symptoms and that (Chandra) is doing great, and we know he’ll be back and ready to go very soon.
"It’s going to be difficult for him to be out of the car and away from his team, but it’s the right thing to do for Jimmie and everyone involved."
Johnson said that in the last couple weeks, he’s only been at the race track — including last weekend’s doubleheader at Pocono — along with a quick trip to Charlotte 8-10 days ago, and a one-day trip to Indianapolis last Thursday. While in Indy, he stepped into the Dallara simulator ahead of his proposed test next week, and he was also in the CGR shop for a seat-fitting and short meeting. There, he said he interacted with 2-4 people in a small room.
Additionally, a CGR team source told The Indianapolis Star that, though Johnson’s planned IndyCar test with the team has been shelved for the time being, it’s too early to say whether the test will be postponed, rescheduled or canceled completely.
Johnson said Friday he had preliminary conversations with an abundance of teams around the IndyCar paddock about a potential future in American open-wheel racing following the end of his full-time stock car career and, if an initial test went well, would be open to doing as many as all the road and street courses the series currently runs.
And with the addition of the aeroscreen protective device, he was still toying with a run in the Indianapolis 500, barring getting the OK amid safety concerns from his wife.