Johnson was born in Wilkes County, North Carolina, the fourth of seven children of Lora Belle Money and Robert Glenn Johnson, Sr. His family is of Ulster Scots descent, and settled in the foothills of North Carolina in the early 1600s. The Johnson family was involved in the whiskey business before he was born. His maternal great-grandfather served as the second highest ranking Confederate general in North Carolina. His father, a lifelong bootlegger, spent nearly twenty of his sixty-three years in prison, as their house was frequently raided by revenue agents. His family experienced the largest alcohol raid in United States history, seizing 400 gallons of moonshine from the house. Junior spent one year in prison in Ohio for having an illegal still, although he was never caught in his many years of transporting bootleg liquor at high speed.
In 1955, Johnson began his career as a NASCAR driver. In his first full season, he won five races and finished sixth in the 1955 NASCAR Grand National points standings.
In 1958 he won six races. At Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Johnson also won the NHRA B/G (B Gas) title, driving a Chevrolet-powered 1941 Studebaker. His winning pass was a 13.13 seconds at 104.04 mph (167.44 km/h).
In 1959, he won five more NASCAR Grand National races (including a win from the pole position at the 1959 Hickory 250); by this time he was regarded as one of the best short-track racers in the sport.
His first win at a "superspeedway" came at the Daytona 500 in 1960. Johnson and his crew chief Ray Fox were practicing for the race, trying to figure out how to increase their speed, which was 22 miles per hour (35 km/h) slower than the top cars in the race. During a test run a faster car passed Johnson. He noticed that when he moved behind the faster car his own speed increased due to the faster car's slipstream. Johnson was then able to stay close behind the faster car until the final lap of the test run, when he used the "slipstream" effect to slingshot past the other car. By using this technique, Johnson went on to win the 1960 Daytona 500, despite the fact his car was slower than others in the field. Johnson's technique was quickly adopted by other drivers, and his practice of "drafting" has become a common tactic in NASCAR races.
In 1963 he had a two-lap lead in the World 600 at Charlotte before a spectator threw a bottle onto the track and caused a crash; Johnson suffered only minor injuries.
He retired as a driver in 1966. In his career, he claimed 50 victories, 11 at major speedway races. He retired as the winningest driver never to have a championship.
Johnson was a master of dirt track racing. "The two best drivers I've ever competed against on dirt are Junior Johnson and Dick Hutcherson," said two-time NASCAR champion Ned Jarrett.
As a team owner, he worked with some of the legendary drivers in NASCAR history, including Darel Dieringer, LeeRoy Yarbrough, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip, Neil Bonnett, Terry Labonte, Geoffrey Bodine, Sterling Marlin, Jimmy Spencer and Bill Elliott. In all, his drivers won 139 races, which is third to Petty Enterprises and Hendrick Motorsports. His drivers won six Winston Cup Championships—three with Yarborough (1976–1978) and Waltrip (1981–82, 1985).
In 2011, Johnson announced that he would restart a race team with son Robert as driver. Junior Johnson Racing will be located in Hamptonville, North Carolina. Robert, the 2010 UARA Rookie of the Year, plans to run a 28–30 race schedule in 2011, which includes the entire K&N East Series schedule and some races in the UARA and Whelen All-American Series.He was named one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998.
He was inducted in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1991.
Johnson joined North Carolina greats Michael Jordan, Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty by having a stretch of highway named in his honor in 2004. His daughter Meredith sang the national anthem at the dedication of the highway. An 8.5-mile (13.7 km) stretch of U.S. Highway 421 from the Yadkin and Wilkes county line to the Windy Gap exit is named Junior Johnson Highway.
He was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on May 23, 2010.
His first marriage ended in divorce in 1992. His marriage to his current wife Lisa in 1992 has resulted in two children, daughter Meredith Suzanne, and son Robert Glenn Johnson III, both whom attended Duke University. He resides in Charlotte, North Carolina. Johnson is referenced in the Bruce Springsteen song "Cadillac Ranch". "Junior Johnson drivin' thru the woods of Caroline..."
On December 26, 1986, President Ronald Reagan granted Johnson a presidential pardon for his 1956 moonshining conviction. In response to the pardon, which restored his right to vote, Johnson said, "I could not have imagined anything better."
In the mid 1960s writer Tom Wolfe researched and wrote an article about Johnson, published March 1965 in Esquire, and reprinted in Wolfe's The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby (1965) (in turn reprinted in The Best American Sports Writing of the Century, ed. David Halberstam ). The article, originally entitled "Great Balls of Fire", turned Johnson into a national celebrity and led to fame beyond the circle of NASCAR fans. In turn, the article was made into a 1973 movie based on Johnson's career as a driver and moonshiner. The movie was entitled The Last American Hero (a.k.a. Hard Driver). Jeff Bridges starred as the somewhat fictionalized version of Johnson, and Johnson himself served as technical advisor for the film. The movie was critically acclaimed and featured the Jim Croce hit song, "I Got A Name".
Follow Your Dreams Productions' President and CEO, Fred Griffith, has signed a rights deal for a true life story movie about Junior Johnson.(Sports Illustrated Vault, 2006) Unlike The Last American Hero which was about a fictionalized character name Junior "Jackson". Griffith, an American actor and producer from South Carolina, is currently adapting a screenplay based largely on the book, Junior Johnson, Brave In Life, written by Tom Higgins and Steve Waid.(Big West Racing, 2006) Veteran actor and producer Chris Mulkey is a writing producer for the film. According to Griffith this film will remain true to the real life of Junior Johnson.(Morris 2006, p. C-1) Johnson had a voice role in the animated film Cars 3, as Junior "Midnight" Moon, a reference to his Moonshine Company.
In May 2007, Johnson teamed with Piedmont Distillers of Madison, North Carolina, to introduce the company's second moonshine product, called Midnight Moon. Johnson became part owner of Piedmont Distillers, the only legal distiller in North Carolina at the time. Midnight Moon follows the Johnson family’s generations-old tradition of making moonshine, and is available in all 50 states. Every batch is born in an authentic, copper still and is handcrafted, in small batches. The 'shine is a legal version of his famous family recipe, and is available in 8 varieties that range from 70–100 proof. Junior describes his moonshine as "Smoother than vodka. Better than whiskey. Best shine ever."
(key) (Bold – Pole position awarded by qualifying time. Italics – Pole position earned by points standings or practice time. * – Most laps led.)