Roxboro, North Carolina native Justin Johnson found himself in the race of his life on the weekend of Thanksgiving in 2017, as he was locked in a heated battle with Matt McCall for the checkered flag in the Thanksgiving Classic at Southern National Motorsports Park. Johnson appeared to have the race-winning Late Model, but an issue in the placement of McCall’s transponder put him in front of Johnson during a late caution, which handed him the lead and ultimately the victory and forced Johnson to settle for second.
One year has passed since the 2017 Thanksgiving Classic and Johnson has not forgotten about the circumstances surrounding his second-place finish in the race, as he has been preparing all season for another opportunity to take home a trophy in the prestigious Late Model race. This year’s Thanksgiving Classic will carry extra significance for Johnson, as he will permanently step away from the driver’s seat once the checkered flag falls on Sunday evening.
“Even though we race on Saturdays over the summer, it just turns into work sometimes,” Johnson said. “With some of these kids’ ages and everything they’re trying to do to advance in the sport, that’s perfectly fine, but me being 31, I just felt it was a good time to get out of it. I’m just not the guy that can be a full-time driver anymore.”
Retirement was not on Johnson’s mind when the 2018 racing season began, as he had signed up to participate in the CARS Response Energy LMSC Tour’s Touring 12 program that offered benefits to drivers who participated in the full season. Johnson ran consistently in his first three races of the season with Robert Tyler, with his best run coming in the BakerDist.com 100 at Myrtle Beach Speedway, where he finished in third after leading 14 laps.
When the CARS Response Energy Tour traveled to Hickory Motor Speedway for the Cloer Construction 300, Johnson was absent from the track, which led to Tyler bringing in Will Burns at the last minute to drive the #44 Puryear Tank Lines Ford. After not showing up for the U.S. Short Track Nationals at Bristol Motor Speedway, Johnson announced that he was stepping away from full-time racing immediately, with Tyler hiring Charlie Watson to take over as Johnson’s replacement.
Johnson stayed away from racing for a few months until he made his return to Late Model competition in the Thrifty Tire / Puryear Tank Lines 300 at Orange County Speedway, but he was only able to salvage a 15th place finish after encountering mechanical issues in the final 50 laps. Johnson decided that he did not want to end his career with an engine failure and managed to work out a deal to pilot the #44 Puryear Tank Lines Late Model two more times in the Myrtle Beach 400 and the Thanksgiving Classic.
Whatever rust Johnson had accumulated during his time away from the track was gone only a few hours after starting his engine at Myrtle Beach, as he had one of the fastest cars the entire weekend and found himself in a close battle for the lead with Chad McCumbee and several others. Johnson’s strong run came to an end with 40 laps to go when he lost power steering in his car, which forced him to ride around the track in the closing stages, which relegated him to a 17th place run.
The last race of Johnson’s career comes at a track where he has found a lot of success at during his time in Late Model racing, which includes a victory in April after holding off charges from both McCaskill’s (Deac and Bradley). Johnson admitted that he is not exactly sure what has led to his consistency at Southern National over the years, but he is confident that he can contend for the win once again after all the speed his car showed at Myrtle Beach last weekend.
“Up until the last two or three years, I really didn’t like racing there, as I wasn’t that good,” Johnson said. “I don’t know why, but we’ve been really strong there recently, as it seems like every time we go, we have great speed and we are always in contention. I don’t know what I’ve changed as a driver to get around there better, but it’s a track where you can’t over hustle and you always have to stick to the bottom. I’ve grown accustomed to the track, and I really enjoy going there now.”
Despite considering Southern National as one of his favorite tracks, Johnson stated that his relationship with track promoter Michael Diaz was briefly strained following last year’s Thanksgiving Classic, but Johnson added that it did not take long for the two of them to patch things up. Johnson credited Diaz for all the work that he puts into not only Southern National but to the entire short track community, and he is ready to move on from last year’s race and add his name to the list of Thanksgiving Classic winners.
With his auto-racing career set to conclude this weekend, Johnson has been grateful to all the people that have supported him over the years, which includes Tyler, Jason Stanley, his long-time sponsor Puryear Tank Lines and many others. Johnson plans to cherish the numerous memories he has created during his time in Late Models, but he had a quick answer when asked what his favorite memory was behind the wheel.
“I’d say the 2010 season as a whole,” Johnson said. “We won like 12 races and the Virginia State Championship, and almost won the National Championship. I was a lot younger then, and I was a lot more focused trying to make a career out as a driver, and I really didn’t enjoy those wins like I needed to. I have enjoyed the last couple of years as I’ve been trying to have a lot more fun with it instead of dealing with the everyday grind.”
Johnson admitted that he’s going to miss competing against guys such as the McCaskills, Lee Pulliam, Josh Berry, and many others, but he is ready to hang up his helmet and transition into the next phase of his life. The only thing Johnson is focused on at the moment is the 2018 Thanksgiving Classic, where he is hoping to end his career on the highest note possible by finally taking home a trophy in one of the most prestigious Late Model races in the country.