LONG POND, Pa. (AP) — Jimmie Johnson put the beer on ice and held a muted victory celebration. The morning after he hoisted another NASCAR trophy in victory lane, Johnson was in New York to have a form of skin cancer cut out of his right shoulder.
Johnson surprised the auto racing community Monday when he tweeted that he was on a table having a procedure to remove a basal-cell carcinoma, a common and slow-growing form of skin cancer. Growing up in Southern California, Johnson was always outdoors when he wasn’t out racing motorcycles.
“I could vividly remember a lot of sunburns,” Johnson said. “That sun exposure on a mole, there’s just consequences.”
In his first public comments about the cancer scare, Johnson told The Associated Press on Friday he was diagnosed in January. Johnson’s physician told the seven-time NASCAR champion during an annual checkup he had “a mole that was kind of changing shape.” A biopsy confirmed he had skin cancer, but it had not spread and it was not a more severe cancer such as melanoma.
“Carcinoma doesn’t spread. It doesn’t go to the glands,” Johnson said ahead of this weekend’s race at Pocono Raceway. “They just have to dig it out and you’re good to go. Once I understood that, my reaction to the ‘C’ word calmed down.”
The 41-year-old Johnson, married with two daughters, was told he could wait until the end of the year to have the carcinoma removed. Johnson couldn’t wait that long. He knew he wanted it done in New York and the proximity to the track in Dover, Delaware, helped with the timing.
There was just one catch.
“When I explained to them I couldn’t be sweat free or activity free for as long as they hoped for recovery, it just got tricky on when I could time it,” he said. “I didn’t want to wait until the end of the season.”
After the procedure, Johnson waited about an hour for more lab work to make sure no additional cancerous cells were found. He was all clear, needed about 22 stitches and was out the door in about four hours.
The noted fitness freak was back on his bike on Wednesday and out for a run on Thursday. He was at the track on Friday and ready to race in the No. 48 Chevrolet.
“I’m not thinking about it,” he said. “I have full movement and I’m ready to get on the race track.”
Johnson has nearly 2.5 million Twitter followers and used treatment to spread the word on skin cancer.
“With the forum that I have, I felt an obligation to say something,” he said. “I hope there’s parents putting sunblock on their kids more now.”
Johnson put the small scare behind him and is ready to continue his chase in the NASCAR record book. He won his 83rd career Cup race last weekend and moved into a tie with Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough for sixth on the career victories list. Johnson grew up a huge fan of Yarborough and his race helmet was painted in tribute to him. Johnson and the 78-year-old Yarborough are the only drivers in NASCAR history to win three consecutive championships. He called Yarborough this week “on a landline at 2 p.m. sharp.”
“He shared his excitement, how much it really meant to him, it was so cool,” Johnson said. “I was already so excited. I didn’t know how he’d feel about it. He said his phone hadn’t stopped ringing. He connected with friends. The stories, it really opened the memory floodbank for him. It was so well deserved. I was so happy I was able to do that.”
Johnson, who won for the third time this season at Dover , is on a drive for a record eighth championship. Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison are next on the wins list with 84.
Who knows, Johnson may have another helmet painted in their honor for an upcoming race. Johnson drove the entire 10-race Chase last year with a tribute helmet to seven-time champs Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, the Hall of Fame drivers he had been chasing since he won his sixth title in 2013.
Johnson saw the mob that gathered Tony Stewart before his final NASCAR race and decided he would try and give the collector a helmet.
Immediately after the race, he gifted the helmet to Stewart.
“I really wanted to keep it,” Johnson said, laughing.
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