(Reuters) – Seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson rounded out his storied NASCAR career with a fifth-place finish in Phoenix on Sunday and said his heart was full as he gets set to embark on a move to IndyCar next year.
Johnson, who is sixth on NASCAR’s all-time win list with 83 victories, got a standing ovation from spectators when he was introduced at Phoenix Raceway then took photos and exchanged hugs with other drivers as he made his way along pit row.
The 45-year-old driver, who was the focus of several pre-race tributes, then got into a special silver No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for the final start of his last full-time season.
“My heart’s full. I’m just so happy to have this wonderful career and so many great people behind me,” Johnson, flanked by his wife and two daughters, said during an on-track interview.
“This has just been quite a journey for all of us, my heart’s full. I am very thankful for today.”
While Johnson was unable to deliver a fairytale ending to his stellar NASCAR career, there was a brief moment as other drivers pitted ahead of him where he held the lead during the 312-mile season finale.
But now Johnson will turn his focus to the IndyCar Series, where he will make his debut in March with Chip Ganassi Racing at the St. Petersburg Grand Prix for the first of a 13-race road and street course-only schedule for 2021.
“I’ve met so many wonderful people, I’ve worked with great people. I’ve learned so many lessons inside and out of the car and I’m full,” said Johnson.
“This has been a great journey. I’m ready to spend my time a little differently instead of 38 weeks a year being on the road racing in the Cup Series.”
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Stephen Coates)