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 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.