Johnson in comfort zone despite end to run at top
Just a few weeks after winning his first NASCAR championship,
Jimmie Johnson was goofing around with his friends when he decided
to climb atop a golf cart during a charity event. As he pretended
to surf, Johnson fell off the cart and broke his wrist.
Concerned that such a silly incident could tarnish his
reputation, or anger his team and sponsors, he lied about the
circumstances of the accident.
Of course, the truth eventually came out, and Johnson was even
So began a journey of personal growth and maturation for one of
NASCAR’s greatest drivers. For some athletes, that means toning
down the nightlife and focusing on the job. For Johnson, it’s been
more about balancing the two sides of personality – the talented,
super ambitious driver and the guy who likes to have a good
In the early morning after his fourth championship, Johnson was
found asleep on the curb outside his South Beach hotel when the car
service arrived to take him to what ended up being a grueling day
of media appearances for a hungover champion.
The next year, his first as a father, he rolled his pants legs
up and stood in the sand and surf surrounded by his five
championship trophies in a quiet moment of reflection at
There won’t be such a celebration for Johnson this year. His
record run of five consecutive championships came to an end with a
whimper last weekend at Phoenix, where he crossed the finish line
in 14th and was mathematically eliminated from title contention.
Sunday will mark the first time since the Chase for the Sprint Cup
championship format began in 2004 that Johnson won’t be eligible to
win the title heading into the season finale at Homestead-Miami
”I’m definitely disappointed, but that’s motor sports,”
Johnson said. ”It’s a very tough business. What we did over the
last five years was absolutely spectacular. Being on top for as
long as we have been takes a lot of effort to maintain that.
”It just takes a lot out of you. So this will be a nice winter
to unplug and relax and dissect the different areas of the race
team and come back stronger.”
Nobody has been stronger the last five years – more, maybe, if
you go back to 2003, when he finished second in the final points
He won eight races in 2004, the first year of the Chase, and
finished eight points behind champion Kurt Busch. The next year, he
went to Homestead ranked second and with leader Tony Stewart in
reach, only to crash out of the race with a tire issue and finish a
distant fifth in the final standings.
Johnson left Homestead possessed.
”The pressure I put on myself to win a championship was so
great, it was like life or death in 2006,” Johnson said. ”I
watched two great opportunities pass me by in `04 and `05, and I
wasn’t sure I was going to get another chance at a championship. So
it was really like life or death for me in `06. Then when I won
one, then came trying to chill out a little bit and learn to enjoy
racing and enjoy the challenges and learning how to be more
confident and comfortable in my own skin.”
He’s the first to admit it’s not been an easy road.
Johnson, a 35-year-old Californian, worked his entire life
trying to wow sponsors into giving him the money he needed to
pursue a racing career. It required him to be buttoned-up, the
consummate professional and constant salesman. It left him guarded,
and for a long time didn’t help him get the on-track success he
He was collecting a paycheck, but he didn’t start picking up
wins until he signed with Hendrick Motorsports in late 2001. Even
with that big break, Johnson kept a clear distinction between work
and play that created the stereotype of a ”plain, vanilla
Here we are now, five championships, 55 victories and more than
$108 million in purse winnings, and Johnson is that guy sparring
with hateful fans on Twitter and unafraid to speak his mind.
”The last five years, from a professional standpoint, the
biggest thing has just been the confidence I now have in my own
shoes,” he said. ”The race track has always been who I am, and I
spent the majority of my life as like a ”B” or ”C” driver. You
don’t build a lot of confidence being a mid-packer.
”So being able to prove to myself, to our industry, what I’m
capable of, it’s helped me gain a lot of confidence in myself, in
my role in the sport and how I fit into the sport. It’s also
allowed me to have a lot more fun.”
Yet it’s still a struggle sometimes, evidenced last month when
Johnson said IndyCar should not be racing on ovals in the wake of
two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon’s death. He meant
high-banked ovals, but because he wasn’t clear, and because he’s
currently the face of motorsports, his words spread throughout the
industry and drew heavy criticism from some racing icons.
”That was a really tough week for me. I was only speaking out
of concern for my friends in the sport, and boy, did it get turned
around,” he said. ”It’s so conflicting at times because,
sometimes, I’ll say or do something and it will go unnoticed. At
times my success is criticized, at times my focus is criticized,
and there’s all these mixed signals and you never know where the
masses are because it’s always moving around.
”Maybe because I’ve always been so far in my head about being
concerned about what I’ve said, that, I didn’t notice how it could
blow up. And as I’ve relaxed a lot more and learned to be
comfortable speaking my opinion – I feel I’ve earned the right to
speak my opinion – you still get these eye-opening moments that are
like `Whoa, that really backfired!”’
Johnson goes into Homestead ranked fifth in the standings, and
when Sunday’s race concludes, either Carl Edwards or Tony Stewart
will officially end his reign. He’s motivated to move up in the
standings – Johnson has never finished lower than fifth in points –
and he’s anxious to sit down with crew chief Chad Knaus to figure
out how they can get back to the top of NASCAR.
Stewart doesn’t think NASCAR will ever see anything like Johnson
and the No. 48 team again.
”I think it’s been absolutely remarkable,” Stewart said. ”I
think he holds his head up high knowing what they’ve accomplished.
That’s something in NASCAR history that I would put my money on
that it will never happen again.”
Four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon, who brought Johnson to
the attention of team owner Rick Hendrick and mentored him a bit in
Johnson’s early Cup years, believes the No. 48 team will be
”I said this a while back, before they won a championship, they
were just right on the edge of winning that championship, and I
said `Once they win one, watch out, these guys are going to go on
quite a roll,’ ” Gordon said. ”When the chemistry is there and
you’ve got great equipment like we have at Hendrick, you’ve got a
great crew chief in Chad Knaus as well as Jimmie Johnson being a
great driver … they got on quite a run.
”It’s something you only see every so often. I don’t know if
we’ll ever see five in a row, but you will see from time to time
where a team is just that good for a long period of time. I think
this will be a year where they learn a lot, they grow a lot from
and might even make them stronger.”
That’s what Johnson is hoping for. He plans to sleep some more
this offseason, have fun with his friends and his family, and have
a quiet offseason.
But he’s adamant he’ll be back in 2012, when his first goal will
be winning the Daytona 500 with Knaus on the pit box. The crew
chief was suspended by NASCAR when Johnson won NASCAR’s biggest
race in 2006.
”We need to really dig deep this winter, make sure we’re
focused on the right areas,” he said. ”I want to win another
Daytona 500, I want to win one with Chad there. He needs that
photo, he needs that experience. And I want to win championships. I
want to win more championships.
”That’s the unfortunate part, winning races, you get that taste
in your mouth and you want to keep winning races. And then you win
championships. You want to keep winning them. You just have this
desire to just keep winning. I don’t want to give anyone else a
chance to hold that trophy.”
Follow Jenna Fryer on Twitter: www.Twitter.com/JennaFryer