MIAMI BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson won’t win a record eighth championship this year. He could wind up as NASCAR’s charitable champion, though.
Johnson came up short in his bid to make Sunday’s championship-deciding race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he won his seventh title a year ago. As he pushed to make history this year, Johnson stayed the course in his philanthropic endeavors.
He traveled to Florida to help assist in hurricane recovery efforts, held his annual golf tournament to raise funds for the Jimmie Johnson Foundation and awarded 13 schools across California, North Carolina and Oklahoma more than $700,000 in grants. Johnson and his three Hendrick Motorsports teammates also combined to donate $200,000 to establish a hurricane disaster relief fund.
In 11 years, Johnson has raised more than $7 million to distribute in grants that range from $20,000 to $75,000 for K-12 public schools in Chandra and Jimmie Johnson’s hometowns, as well as their current home in Charlotte, North Carolina.
For his efforts, Johnson is a finalist for the Comcast Community Champion of the Year, which will be announced Thursday before NASCAR’s championship weekend begins. Other finalists include Brad Keselowski, who runs the Checkered Flag Foundation that assists recovering veterans and first responders, and the pit crew from Chip Ganassi Racing, which aided the Ronald McDonald House of Charlotte this season.
For Johnson, giving back to the community is how he was raised by his family in El Cajon, California, and not a responsibility that comes with being a NASCAR champion who has earned more than $170 million over 17 years.
“I was doing charitable work when I was in high school,” Johnson said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I’ve just always been drawn to it. Some of the situations weren’t always comfortable. When I was really young, going to a children’s hospital, that was the space I started in.
“I identified with making those kids smile, making those kids happy. It made me something inside me feel right, and made me want to do more as I aged.”
Johnson started his charitable work by participating in Habitat for Humanity builds, graduated to visiting children’s hospitals and now has his foundation dedicated to educational purposes. He said he’s seen many worthy causes come through the requests, but often the grant has not been completed properly. So his foundation now identifies those candidates and tries to help them submit a proper request.
On his trip to Florida to aid in hurricane relief in late September, Johnson brought his 7-year-old daughter, Evie.
“Florida was really, it was heartbreaking, and it was educational,” he said. “I took Evie down with me, I wanted her to see it, she was asking enough questions that I felt like she was old enough to see it. It affected here and it made her pretty sad. I wanted her to know that this is something mom and dad do, and we want you and your sister to be part of this.”
The Johnsons have established roots in Charlotte. He’s partnered in the opening of a new restaurant that specializes in the type of Mexican food he grew up enjoying in Southern California, and Chandra owns an art gallery.
“For Chani, she’s just really been wanting to create a gallery for some time, and she loves the creative space,” he said. “The adventures that her experiences have brought us, the people we’ve met, it’s really changed our lives as adults more than anything probably than having children. We’re both just trying to do things that we are passionate about. We want to do things that make a difference.”