Jimmie Johnson raises millions of dollars for charity and is prone to making unpublicized donations and quiet hospital visits. He is beloved by the crew members on his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet and is rarely without a smile or pat on the back to those he knows both well and fleetingly.
He’s extremely close to his parents and brothers, shines in the presence of his wife and year-old daughter and collects friends like NASCAR’s naughty boy Kurt Busch collects enemies.
Johnson, 35 has a great and famous sense of humor — once using his Twitter account to offer Kyle Busch a ride home from dinner when a speeding ticket cost Busch his driver’s license. And for the most dominant NASCAR driver of his generation, his self-deprecating humility catches you off-guard.
So when his race spotter Earl Barban so quickly answered the question, “what is the real Jimmie Johnson like?” by calling this reporter closer for the answer — I was all ears.
“You ready?” Barban deadpanned, looking around as if he had a huge secret to reveal.
“Here it is: he is a nice guy. What you see is what you get.
“He’s happy. He’s got a great life and so he enjoys that. He’s friendly. You can’t find a better guy to hang out with, whether it’s fishing or going on vacation with, or working with or golfing or having a drink … you can’t find a nicer, more up-front guy.”
That may be bad news to the growing legion of “Anyone but Johnson” NASCAR fans who still yearn for an “Intimidator” or “King”-like persona in their greatest champions. But it does prove that nice guys can finish first. Over and over. And over and over and over again.
This nice guy also has an under-appreciated intensity that’s resulted in a historic, record-setting five consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championships in the sport’s most competitive era. And by most accounts, he’s the favorite to win a sixth heading into Sunday’s opening race of the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup at Chicagoland Speedway.
Fans begrudge Johnson’s dominance in a way even the very drivers he’s beating won’t.
“Jimmie is a great champion and a great representative of our sport,” two-time Cup champ Tony Stewart said. “I never understood why people give him such a hard time.”
It’s especially dumbfounding considering Johnson’s modest upbringing more closely resembles NASCAR’s middle-class fan base than the often privileged drivers he races against.
Johnson grew up in a blue-collar suburb in the shadow of cosmopolitan San Diego. His father Gary Johnson, a truck driver, once described their humble brick-block house as having one bathroom but four motorcycles. Those were used for high-speed family bonding sessions — and apparently NASCAR champion training – in the massive Southern California desert nearby.
Johnson’s former teachers at Granite Hills High in El Cajon, Calif. remember the former homecoming king candidate and water polo star as popular, very athletic and a bit mischievous in a harmless way.
His former principal, Georgette Torres, laughs about a visit he made to the school after winning his first Cup championship when he drove his race car onto the school track for a school assembly and couldn’t resist doing donuts. He immediately apologized, of course, but admitted it was something he’d always wanted to do.
His longtime friends say he is always up for a prank.
Earlier this year Johnson began a “mini-Chad” campaign, poking fun at his no-nonsense crew chief Chad Knaus by having people pose with a small cardboard cutout of Knaus.
Now Johnson’s creation has its own Facebook account and there are 4,000 Mini Chad followers on Twitter.
As for Twitter, it has become the ultimate outlet for Johnson, who is one of the few athletes to post his own comments instead of using a watered-down public relations representative’s version.
It’s been a great conduit to communicate and connect with his fans and other racers as well as A-list stars and athletes he counts among his large following. Through Twitter, Johnson takes part in near-weekly giveaways for fans. Earlier this season, he publicly stood up to Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate, who suggested NASCAR drivers weren’t athletes.
Longtime friends like former SCCA Trans Am champ and fellow Californian Tommy Kendall aren’t a bit surprised by his success or that his success hasn’t changed him. Kendall recalls a couple years back when he and his younger brother were going to stay at Johnson’s North Carolina home after a cross-country trip, but were delayed in getting there.
“I called Jimmie and told him we’d just get a hotel, that it might be midnight before we got in,” Kendall said. “Jimmie said, ‘no way, call me and wake me up when you’re here.’
“And you know what? Not only did he get up, he made us breakfast sandwiches at two in the morning. That’s the kind of guy he is.
“A lot of people appear easy-going but when the pressure’s on you really see if that’s the case,” said Kendall, who hosts the SPEED Channel show “Test Drive."
“He just has a sense of calm about him.
Reporters in the media center last weekend in Richmond noted that he’s so even-keeled, he didn’t even do a good job of retaliating during a rare show of on-track frustration. After a string of run-ins this summer with Kurt Busch, Busch hit Johnson early in Saturday’s Richmond race. Johnson then purposely and unapologetically tagged Busch’s car from behind. Busch spun but didn’t hit anything and still ended up finishing fifth, while Johnson hit the wall and hobbled home 30th.
Judging by the postrace press conference, Johnson still got the better end of the deal, calmly and unapologetically explaining his retaliation and how he hopes to put the incident behind them.
Busch was flustered, frustrated and appeared off his game, giving Johnson exactly the kind of mental edge he has used to his advantage for years.
“He doesn’t get enough credit in any way as far as I’m concerned,” Kendall said. “He won five straight titles and people acted like the car drove itself and he was inside taking a nap.
“He and I have talked about this before and he says that not only did he never imagine himself winning five championships, he wasn’t sure if he’d ever find something he was really good at. I think he found something.
“If you don’t like Jimmie Johnson, you’ve got to just manufacture some reason.