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El Cajon's Jimmie Johnson hangs it up

Our local NASCAR hero runs his last race in Fontana

Jimmie Johnson at Fontana: “It’s starting to sink in.”
  • Jimmie Johnson at Fontana: “It’s starting to sink in.”
  • Courtesy of AAA Speedway

It was the last professional Southern California appearance of El Cajon native Jimmie Johnson in Sunday, March 1’s Auto Club 400 race at the Fontana speedway. The record holding seven-time NASCAR series champion is tied with the top racing legends of Dale Earhart and Richard Petty, at seven wins each.

The 44-year-old Johnson, a 1993 graduate from Granite Hills High School, began racing motorcycles at age four. Shortly after high school, he started racing in the Mickey Thompson off-road series before joining the NASCAR circuit in 2000. His first win on that circuit was at the Fontana Speedway in 2002.

In 2010, controversy erupted when the City of El Cajon attempted to rename Johnson Avenue as Jimmie Johnson Avenue.

In 2010, controversy erupted when the City of El Cajon attempted to rename Johnson Avenue as Jimmie Johnson Avenue.

In pre-race ceremonies, Johnson received a long standing ovation from the thousands of fans, as he appeared with his wife Chandra, daughters Genevieve and Lydia, and his pit crew.

As a tribute, during an extra lap, Johnson was asked to line up in front of the pack, behind the pace car, as the rest of the field followed him around the track five cars wide. Johnson’s wife and daughters got to wave the green flag to start the race.

During a few laps under a slower yellow flag caution, Johnson reported to the FOX broadcast booth, “It’s starting to sink in,” he said of his final SoCal race. “This is still so cool,” referring to his last run on his home track.

After 400 miles, Johnson placed seventh, leading only ten laps. It was his 18th appearance at Fontana, where he usually finished in the top ten.

Thought by many to be a sport of the South, during pre-race interviews, Johnson pointed out there were five other Californians entered in the race.

Johnson tipped his hat to race winner Alex Bowman, a fellow Southern Californian who grew up 20 miles from the racetrack.

The East County hero through his Jimmie Johnson Foundation has given millions of dollars to local charities, helping rebuild the area after the 2003 Cedar and 2007 Witch Creek wildfires.

In 2010, controversy erupted when the City of El Cajon attempted to rename Johnson Avenue as Jimmie Johnson Avenue. Descendants of the first Johnson, Dr. Charles Johnson, an East County pioneer, objected. An embarrassed city council chose to name a section of Second Street off the I-8 exit as Jimmie Johnson Drive.

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There are plenty of old-school Padres, Chargers, & Clippers fans here. But this was a time when San Diego was not involved in car racing: location of race tracks nor where drivers live at. For car racing -- I would choose myself of such time back -- with the timeline of Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, etc. The timeline when really no-one in San Diego county like car racing; the time before the county grew so much of. Still, this county never went as far as lay-out a permanent car race track; overall --- the most achieved was the "Del Mar GP." (but not as far as a 6 hour race, or higher) In the earlier time, I remember when Carlsbad had its 'motocross' annually. I remember the great road racing cyclist of Kenny Roberts.

For many years there was a race track in El Cajon. It was well attended but the moneyed interests, developers and Fletcher Hills residents worked with the bought-and-paid-for politicians to close the track. There used to be racing at Balboa Stadium and there used to be a drag race track in Ramona. Back-in-the-day as they say.

Good news is that he is one of not-so-many race car drivers who will likely die a natural death. (Most of them die on the track.) And he may get to live for many more years and do good deeds.

I doubt that this current El Cajon city government would attempt another embarrassing move like that street renaming. It will be interesting to see how he lives out his twilight years. He can do many good things, and one might be to promote safe driving habits to young drivers, those who seem to be involved in fatal crashes due to risky and aggressive moves.

San Diego County has been a ball-headed sports center for too long. This county needs some change; seems the only(version of) change to make it here -- is the immigration from multiple international countries.

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