When Jimmie Johnson came into the Daytona International Speedway Media Center Friday afternoon, he did something racers almost never do: He talked about something other than racing. No mention of how the No. 48 was running, no thanking the boys back at the shop, no gratuitous sponsor mentions.
Johnson was there to talk physical fitness.
And with good reasons.
For most race fans, a job in NASCAR sounds like the sexiest thing in the world -- "You get to travel and see every race for free!" --and there's no doubt that those of us in the NASCAR business are very, very fortunate to be able to feed our families by doing something we love. I wouldn't trade what I do for anything.
That said, the rigors of the NASCAR schedule are hell on our bodies. Travelling to 38 races in 41 weeks -- not to mention the long hours and high-stress work environment -- makes it far too easy to get out of shape by eating poorly and not getting enough exercise. Johnson wants to change that.
Last year, at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Johnson reached out to an old friend, Tony Gibson, who is crew chief for Kurt Busch and the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet. Like a lot of us, Gibson was overweight and out of shape.
"He (Johnson) said, 'We've known each other since I've gotten into this and you've been a great friend to me,'" said Gibson. "And he said, 'I'm worried about you, worried about your health and I want to see you get healthy.'"
So Johnson hooked Gibson up with this trainer, helped him understand how to balance his diet and not let himself balloon up over the winter.
As of mid-January, Gibson had lost 36 pounds.
"Jimmie's been a huge supporter," Gibson said. "Around Christmas time and Thanksgiving, he'd send me a text -- 'You doing alright? You OK?' And then I saw him at a couple of tests we did. He'll come over and look at me. I have to send him pictures. During the off-season, he'll say, 'Hey, man, send me a picture. I want to see what you look like.' So I'd have to stand there and let my wife take a picture of me."
There was a reason for that: Johnson cares about his buddy.
"He just really wants to see me do good and lose a lot of weight," said Gibson. "Right now, I feel really good. And as long as I can feel good and feel better about myself, and have more energy, that's what I'm looking for."
I would humbly submit the world would be a better place if more of us watched out for our friends the way Johnson has for Gibson.
And now, Johnson wants to help others get in shape, too. One of his pet projects is the JJF Wellness Challenge, a series of three athletic events in the Metro Charlotte area. Read about it at www.jjfwellnesschallenge.org.