Commentary

Johnson a champ on and off track

Ask around and people will tell you Jimmie Johnson is the real deal, whether it's on the track as a three-time Cup champion or off it as a longtime friend, writes Marty Smith.

Updated: February 13, 2009, 10:35 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

It is a balmy Monday in February in South Florida, and a group of friends has descended upon a swanky Palm Beach residence to relax by the pool with some drinks and a game of full-contact charades -- guys against girls. Among them is Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, whose acting skill leaves plenty to be desired.

Wearing a polo shirt and glorified pajama pants, flip-flops and a three-month shadow, he is trying desperately to persuade the others to scream "Free Willy!" His wife, Chandra, is a movie nut, and she charged him with the task.

He continually points at a certain region of the male anatomy, then performs some sort of slithery snake maneuver with his arm before looking at the group in exasperation. This goes on for 10 minutes until he taps out and tag-teams Chandra to take over.

She is embarrassed by her husband's, well, charade.

She taps her arm a couple of times and puts a Jimmy Buffett fin on her forehead and 30 seconds later, six people shout "Free Willy!" amid hysterical laughter, the kind of cackling that makes your face hurt.

"You know, 'Freeee.' 'Willllly,'" Johnson says, cracking up as he performs the arm movement yet again. "I can't believe you guys didn't get that."

One of the assembled quickly chimes in, "Might wanna stick to driving, man."

Fair argument. No one in the world among the elite racing series has driven as consistently well as Johnson has in the past three years, save maybe Donny Schatz in the World of Outlaws. Not Formula One champ Lewis Hamilton or IndyCar star Scott Dixon or Grand Am ace Scott Pruett.

And certainly no one in NASCAR.

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"What he's doing is just stupid," fellow Cup driver Kasey Kahne said. "It takes so much to win out here, and Jimmie could easily have five championships in a row. It's just crazy."

"I've stood with him on the track before a race, and it's like looking at the Terminator," said former New York Giants all-pro cornerback Jason Sehorn, a friend of Johnson's. "There aren't many expressions to him. He's focused and collecting his thoughts, just ready to flip the switch to race mode. It's what God put him on the earth to do, drive cars."

Some say elite athletes have a switch, an ability to enter the competitive arena and immediately cast aside extraneous variables to focus on one thing -- winning.

"When it is time to pull the trigger, there is nobody in automotive racing -- and I am not just talking stock cars -- in any other form, that pulls the trigger as hard as Jimmie," said seven-time motocross champion Rick Johnson, the closest thing Jimmie has to an older brother.

"To me, it's like tunnel vision," said Atlanta Braves pitcher Mike Hampton, another of Johnson's friends. "You have so much going on in your life, and you enjoy yourself outside of what you do and have fun and laugh and that's your personality, what you see and love.

"But when you get on the mound or behind the wheel, the eyebrows narrow and you bow up and it's go time. It's what you're here to do. He has that, as much as anyone I've been around. He's like, 'Lock and load, I get paid to win.' And he does it. There's a lot of guys out there like that, and those are the ones on the top of the heap when it's all said and done."

Johnson has had that commitment his entire life.

"The thing that Jimmie had over anybody I've ever known is commitment," Rick Johnson said.

Rick illustrates that sentiment with the story of 6-year-old Jimmie competing on dirt bikes against another kid who continually beat him, though barely. Rick was watching this unfold, gauging Jimmie's speed.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Courtesy Johnson FamilyA young Jimmie Johnson learned to win on two wheels before switching to four.

He realized that everyone was slowing down for one particular jump and that if Jimmie could just clear it, he'd win going away. RJ explained this to Jimmie -- "Hold it wide open, you'll clear it. Have faith in yourself. If you lift, you'll get hurt. Look me in the eye and tell me you can do it, because you can."

As young Jimmie screamed around the corner toward the jump, his father, Gary, punched Rick in the shoulder. He knew what was up. Sure enough, Jimmie went for it -- and cleared it perfectly. But upon landing, he suddenly turned and slid off track.

"He goes, 'You told me I could do it, and I knew I could do it, but it scared me too bad, so I closed my eyes,'" RJ recalled. "That is the kind of a commitment that our Special Forces officers have, that the great racers have -- that when they believe their mentors, they will do whatever it takes.

"I saw that at 7 years old, a kid that will commit himself basically to jumping out of a plane in his mind. 'Rick said I can do it. I am going to do it.'"

The journey

Johnson's journey to racing immortality has been long and winding, from one coast to the other by way of remote desert paths and private jets and ol' dusty couches and a million left-hand turns.

He has evolved through the years to remain true to himself, been forced to redirect friendships and be more guarded. He is quite philanthropic, an avenue to give back some of that good fortune.

But for all that has changed, one thing remains constant. Johnson has an uncanny ability to mesh with any crowd, to relate to and respect everyone no matter their so-called credentials.

"To me, it's pretty simple -- he lacks pretension," said Chris Tucker, one of Johnson's high school buddies. "He doesn't see a janitor, he sees a person -- who happens to be a janitor. In his own sense, he doesn't view himself as anything more or anything less than anybody else. That allows him to connect with anyone, doesn't matter what they do. You're a person. That's the way he's always been."

"You can be sitting on the porch having a beer, and he treats everybody the same," Hampton said. "He's a complete superstar, but when you see him outside [of work], he makes everybody feel like, 'Man, he could be my best friend.' When you can be a humble superstar -- how does it get any cooler than that?"

"Jimmie is the same Jimmie; we just can't communicate the same way we did before," Rick Johnson said. "He doesn't have time. Now we text each other. We still joke about what's going on. It is just not as frequent, but I totally understand it. That guy has got someone scheduling every half hour of his life."

To me, it's pretty simple -- he lacks pretension. He doesn't see a janitor, he sees a person -- who happens to be a janitor. In his own sense, he doesn't view himself as anything more or anything less than anybody else.

-- Jimmie Johnson's friend Chris Tucker

It is late January, just before the Super Bowl. This particular prescheduled half hour has Johnson at the wheel, eyes trained on Turn 3 at Lowe's Motor Speedway, screaming down the back straightaway at nearly 100 mph in a fresh-off-the-lot 2010 Chevy Tahoe.

It is black, gray leather interior, 22s, chromed out. It's nice. It's not his.

Seated behind Johnson is his buddy, pop star Nick Lachey. A shade paler than normal, Lachey is searching for the seat belt. Johnson's not much into testing the fortitude of street cars on the racetrack. They're not built to crash, after all.

But this particular SUV won't let him surpass 95 mph, so he figures he can flat-foot it, i.e., circumnavigate the entire racetrack -- even the corners -- without ever cracking the throttle.

By the third trip around, Lachey and three other passengers are pretty well puckered up. Impulsively, Johnson decides to display the difficulty involved in decelerating to pit-road speed. Bad news for the cameraman in the back seat, peering at Johnson through the viewfinder.

Face plant. Shin contusion. Schoolgirl laughter.

"Oh! Sorry, cameraman," he says above the billowing cackle. "Forgot you were there."

Johnson is a jackass. He'll tell you so, using that very terminology. Despite the corporate poster-boy persona, he can raise hell with the very best of them. He says and does all the right things, personally and professionally. Ask around the NASCAR garage, and you won't find a soul who speaks ill of him. Few drivers in history are so respected or accomplished.

And few folks of his stature live so carefree.

"Off the track and out of the car, Jimmie's a guy who has fun, lets it loose and enjoys the practical joke more than most," Sehorn said. "I haven't met many people who can flip the switch from their job to their free time, as he enjoys his free time like few people I've met. He's a true guy's guy.

"It's probably a good thing more people don't know exactly how fun or loose he is, as he'd be stuck in the infield at Daytona for the two weeks with all the fans."

Family affair

He got it honestly, that attitude. His upbringing is well-chronicled. He grew up 20 miles east of San Diego to working-class parents. His mother, Cathy, drove Bus No. 4 for the Lakeside Union school district. His father, Gary, manned a backhoe. They didn't have much -- even lived in a trailer park for a while -- but they were a tight bunch.

"When you are a kid, it's not good or bad living in a trailer, or living in an apartment or living in a big house," Rick Johnson said. "It doesn't matter, if you've got friends, family and you have fun things to do. He had a great childhood."

Gary and Cathy were children of the '60s, programmed to take life as it comes and let it ride. On weekends, they'd pack Jimmie and his younger brother Jarit (the youngest, Jessie, wasn't around just yet) in a '78 Ford van and head to the desert, towing tinkered-together dirt bikes in a 12-foot enclosed trailer.

The van had a bed in the back for mom and dad, and the boys would crash in sleeping bags in the trailer. They'd camp and ride for hours -- the boys on bikes, Gary and Cathy on ATVs.

Gary was eaten up with dirt bike racing, and one particular day in the mid-'70s, he was headed down the highway toward South Bay Speedway. He approached another truck and tried to pass. The other driver cut him off, and off they went, 95 mph down the highway. Cathy, pregnant with Jimmie at the time, feet up on the dash, was screaming for Gary to stop. When they got to the gate, the men shared a beer and a laugh.

In the other vehicle were 10-year-old motocross phenom Rick Johnson and his father. A relationship was hatched that day, and Gary ultimately became Rick Johnson's bike mechanic. They became family. Rick even changed Jimmie's diapers.

"Jimmie, he was cuter than the Gerber baby growing up," Rick Johnson said. "Everybody loved him. To me, it was the little brother that I never had."

Little brother grew up watching RJ kill it on the motocross circuit, saw him jump to the pinnacle and saw firsthand all that comes with it. He learned from big brother's missteps and the here-today, gone-tomorrow lifestyle. Jimmie filed it all away.

"He wasn't just exposed to the good side of my life," RJ said. "He saw me when I got hurt. He saw the pull on your personal life, the struggles that I had with my mom and dad and my sister, and also saw how phony people can be. He would always go to the races in San Diego, and he would have to struggle to get to me.

"Jimmie is a great learner and a great student -- the good and the bad of success, not just, 'Wow, the cars and the house and all that stuff that goes with it,' but actually what it takes to sit in the limelight and be a role model."

Jimmie followed Rick into bike racing, and quickly moved his way through the ranks by winning championships at every level until he blew out his knee on his 8th birthday. Shortly after returning from that injury, he had another wreck, breaking seven toes. Goodbye, dirt bikes.

For a time, Gary quietly hoped Jimmie would move to buggies. As a father, the thought of a roll cage encapsulating his son was just fine. After Jimmie broke his toes, he hung it up for a year, messed around racing Jet Skis and hanging out with friends.

"I'd had it, and I wanted to be a kid," Jimmie said. "That's the bottom line."

During that time, Gary began working as crew chief for a friend's off-road buggy, leading to a relationship with BF Goodrich tires that ultimately landed him a job with the tire manufacturer. Through that relationship, Jimmie had the opportunity to meet Herb Fischel, who ran Chevrolet racing at the time.

Hello, destiny.

"Herb was like the director of the symphony," said Randy Herzog, for whom Jimmie drove off-road and stock cars. "Herb always looked at the big picture. Herb had identified Jimmie early in his career and had him under contract and was looking for the right place to put Jimmie."

Fischel would play a pivotal role in Johnson's career path. He believed in the young driver, and would keep him in rides -- starting with off-road trucks.

Locals will tell you everybody in El Cajon races something, so when the off-road trucks came to town, they all went. Johnson was invited. Some of his buddies on the swim team would be there, and they planned to hang in the parking lot and sneak some beers. They asked if he was going, and he replied yes. When they asked if he planned to join them, he said, no, he'd probably be down in the pits.

"I was like, 'You got pit passes? Awesome!'" Tucker said. "He said, 'No, no. I'll be racing.' So wait, I've known this guy for six months and I didn't even know he raced? It took me three times of asking him to get him to admit it to me. He didn't jump up and down about it then, and still doesn't now."

"I think that Jimmie has really stayed true to who he is, and himself and his friends and family," Chandra Johnson said. "I think he's really stayed grounded, which is hard to do, I think, when you're so successful so quickly."

Jimmy Johnson? I'm Jimmie Johnson

In 1996, 21-year-old Jimmie was racing an off-road truck, with notable success. Chevrolet flew him to Orlando for media training, and he ran into Ron Hornaday. He'd met him before, and Hornaday reminded him he had an open couch whenever Johnson was ready to move to North Carolina.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Johnson family Jimmie Johnson eventually switched to off-road racing, where he soared again.

At the time, stock cars weren't in the plan, but he filed it away. Later that same week, Johnson was in the pits for a Craftsman Truck Series race, standing beside a gentleman in a Quaker State jacket. Johnson asked whether he worked for the company, and the man said no, that he worked for Hendrick Motorsports. Taken aback, Johnson asked in what capacity.

"He said, 'general manager. I'm Jimmy Johnson,'" Jimmie recalled. "I said, 'Well, I'm Jimmie Johnson.' I had my corny business cards in my pocket and handed him one."

Jimmie put Jimmy on his fax blast list, and began sending him information from his races. Then one day three months later Jimmie's phone rang at 5 a.m. He presumed it to be one of his buddies, and quickly answered.

"Jimmie Johnson? This is Jimmy Johnson."

"Huh? What the hell is going on?"

"This is Jimmy Johnson, looking for Jimmie Johnson."

"I KNOW!"

Finally, Jimmie figured it out. The GM was on the line.

"He told me, 'Rick Hendrick has a Late Model [car], and he'd like to put you in a stock car,'" Jimmie recalled. "Four days later, I was on a plane to North Carolina."

That was April 4, 1997. Jimmie still has the plane ticket.

Paving the way

Jimmie ran five races in that Late Model and tested a couple of times. He wasn't so good. Near the end of that year, he was home for Christmas and saw his buddies, who asked what he was up to, what was next.

"He said, 'I'm going to NASCAR,'" Tucker said. "We were like, 'Why do you want to do that?' He was jumping trucks. That was the top of the world, man."

The next year, it was off to Wisconsin to race in the American Speed Association for Herzog Motorsports, the same team for which he'd run off-road trucks. After Jimmie spent two years in ASA and a worn-out apartment, Herzog moved to the Busch Series and brought Johnson along.

"[We] saw what we thought was a very personable, genuine, likable young man, but then that's all great, but back to the talent, we felt like he had a tremendous talent," Herzog said. "One of the things that we have always operated our racing program on -- we've been in multiple venues -- was that we would never hire a driver, no matter how talented he was, that we did not personally like. We were extremely comfortable with Jimmie; we thought his talent level was exceptional. As far as we were concerned, it was a perfect hire."

Decisions, decisions

Johnson was testing one of Herzog's cars in Darlington, S.C., in 2000, alongside Ricky Hendrick. Jeff Gordon was there to assist Hendrick, and while standing atop a transporter, he noticed how smooth the No. 92 car looked going around the track. He asked who the driver was and was told Jimmie Johnson. He filed it away.

Later that summer, Gordon was running a Busch Series race and that same driver was giving him all he could handle in half the equipment. Duly noted.

During that same time, Jimmie began getting offers from some higher-profile teams. ppc Racing, which that same season would win the Busch Series championship by a record margin with Jeff Green in the No. 10, courted Johnson to replace Green. He also received an offer to drive Chip Ganassi's No. 01 Dodge. The pressure was tremendous.

Jimmie needed guidance, and he sought out Gordon in the Busch Series drivers' meeting at Michigan International Speedway. Gordon sat down behind him. Gordon told him he'd been meaning to chat with Jimmie anyway and told him to come by the No. 24 transporter later. When Johnson showed up, he explained his situation. Gordon stopped him, then dropped a bomb.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeJimmie Johnson paid early dividends at Hendrick Motorsports, taking the Daytona 500 pole in his 2002 rookie Cup season for part-owner Jeff Gordon.

Hendrick Motorsports was planning to start a new team, and your name came up.

"I went in to get advice and left with the possibility of getting a ride," Johnson said. "I couldn't believe it."

Hendrick had submitted a letter of intent to Johnson's representation that it planned to run him. But with other true contract offers pending, Johnson needed more.

"They had no cars, no shop, no people, no sponsor, nothing," Johnson said. "But Rick and Jeff believed in me so much that they signed me without any of that. That doesn't happen."

History lesson

It is 2001, early fall, and 16-year-old Brian Vickers is lost like Matthew Fox. Eyeing his Busch Series debut in Richmond, Va., he is intimidated.

Unsolicited, another driver approaches. He has a ride and needn't concern himself with the baby-faced wannabe out here on daddy's dime. The others don't. But this one feels compelled to because, well, a few short months ago, that was him.

The conversation was easy, comforting, a small selfless gesture that required little investment by one person but offered mammoth return for the other.

"He walked up and said, 'Hey, that face looks familiar,'" Vickers said. "'You look lost.' He basically went out of his way to help me, for no reason at all. I'll never forget that. That helped me out a lot."

That driver was Johnson. This speaks volumes of his nature. Helping someone else when you could use some help yourself is quite an act of kindness, especially in the competitive arena.

"He just didn't have to do it," Vickers said. "No one else did."

Johnson makes a habit of doing things no one else will, like surfing atop a moving golf cart for the hell of it, and infamously breaking his wrist in the process. Like spontaneously firing a double-barrel salute at another driver in front of 160,000 people at Bristol.

Like winning three consecutive Sprint Cups.

"It has never been my goal to do it and be done," he said. "It has been my goal to do it and continue to perform at that level. I still feel like my mindset is how it was when I first got started. I still have the insecurities when the season starts: Have I forgotten how to drive?

"Can I really do this stuff, and really go back out there and try to find my way again and try to prove it to myself? It is not like I have to jack myself up to go racing again, I mean I am a racer -- this is what I do -- it is easy for me to find motivation [because] I hate losing … it is the only thing I am good at, so I better stick to it and enjoy being successful at it."

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.

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