Brant James
Wednesday November 18th, 2009

Jimmie Johnson leaned out the window of the black sport utility vehicle and waved in the general direction of the guy screaming his name over the din of horns and diesel trucks. A yellow cab tooling up a bustling Columbus Avenue prompted him to tuck back inside quickly.

Coconut custard cream still in the soles of his shoes after a somewhat silly but dutifully performed world record pie fight with several other NASCAR drivers on the Live with Regis and Kelly television show, Johnson scanned his ensuing itinerary with his publicist. It was going to be a full day, again.

Quick lunch. Late morning of interviews. Many more obligations at a media function at the Hard Rock Café Times Square. Unbeknownst to him, a birthday cake delivered by the New York Knicks dance team. Only then could he finally board a plane and depart for Loudon, N.H., where he would attempt to win a record fourth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

Not exactly the most festive of ways to celebrate a 34th birthday (except for the dancers), especially with so much city and so many means at his disposal. Even the previous night there had apparently been just one round of shots at a dinner where the 12 Chase for the Championship-qualifiers gathered with NASCAR executives in their annual pre-playoffs New York junket. Johnson just wasn't in a celebratory mode yet.

Not anxious, or distracted, not anti-social, just typically switched-on when the occasion required it.

Johnson is a man who knows the value of a 10 a.m. can of beer on a golf course or a charter boat, but he was working. Celebration comes in the offseason, and he still had a lot to do this September day.

Maybe that's been the key to Johnson's vexing consumption of the Sprint Cup series since the Chase for the Championship was installed to determine the champion in 2004. He needs at least a 25th-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway to win a record fourth straight. He came within eight points of winning the first Chase in 2004. His 47 wins since his rookie year in 2002 are nearly twice as many as the next-best driver in that span. He has won 18 of 59 Chase races, and despite early season injuries or mid-season performance travails, he and his team, led by Chad Knaus, the only crew chief to win three consecutive titles, know the time to move better than a migratory bird.

But on a cloudy, coolish, dreary September day in New York City, his thoughts were far from these notions. Just like the birthday, they were non-issues.

"Just another day," he said, turning from the front seat of the SUV as the driver slid behind the wheel, a Billy Joel song just a little too loud. "You take care of the day and you move on."

Johnson did that from the start this day. Swooped up from his Manhattan apartment in the morning, and spirited through gathering morning rush hour, he arrived at ABC studios hitting marks and reading cues. Jeff Gordon was NASCAR's original king of the big city, taking up part-time residence in New York, basking in the odd anonymity only eight million neighbors can provide, yet enjoying the benefits of life in the world's capital of culture and fame.

Johnson, who is of decidedly middle class upbringing in El Cajon, Calif., is now becoming a ubiquitous face among the many in the big city. Late in the New York media blitz, he sat for a "Can't Live Without" segment with, reeling off his of favorite local hangouts and eateries -- Milos, love the fresh fish! -- in a three-minute video that will flash across video screens in NYC cabs.

Though Johnson is yet to make his teammate's and friend's comfortable transition onto the set of Regis and Kelly as a regular guest host or into sketches on Saturday Night Live, he was at ease and often on point soon after making his way past a throng of plastic-swathed citizen pie-tossers cordoned off down West 67th St and into a cramped green room.

Standing in the darkened backstage and gazing through a gap out upon the rapt studio audience, Johnson quizzed the stage manager and producer for details of the segment he'd share with Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Juan Pablo Montoya and Brian Vickers. He shared a pleasantry with actor Dennis Quaid, who meandered past following his segment, and a nod for Philbin and Ripa, who breezed past telling an assistant that custard cream must not touch her necklace. When the group finally was trotted out on stage to set up the pie-fight, Johnson delivered the "old" joke when Philbin got too sassy.

Whereas some of the drivers felt a bit demeaned by the pie-throwing session -- and honestly, would Tom Brady be asked to do the same before the NFL playoffs? -- Johnson appeared to, if not enjoy it, live in the moment and then check it off the list.

"That was better than I thought it would be," he said after he and his blue-rain-coated, begoggled comrades exchanged ballistic pastry with the gathered mass. "But the lady with the 48 jersey on just plastered me."

At least he was able to steal away to a bathroom and clean up. No one bothered to tell Busch he still had a dollop of custard on his forehead as he conducted post-pie interviews. Oh well. His problem.

As Philbin dodders past, Johnson signals with a finger flick to another driver that he's about to head through the lobby for the car and his mark for the next commitment.

Nervous yet?


"Terribly," he said, later explaining. "I've found that the longer I can delay the concern worry, excitement, whatever it is, the better."

Pie fights as catharsis. The dynasty is decoded.


Sometimes the glory of it all is just humbling.

In an antechamber back stage at the Hard Rock, sitting on a couch parked on sopped carpet and a few feet from a bathroom that suggested a sewage problem, Johnson perused a thick stack of stapled scripts. He had a few moments to familiarize himself with the dialogue as a NASCAR multimedia staffer prepared to record the series of radio commercials. The term "best racing action" is particularly bedeviling this day, and the whole thing about "chasing ghosts" at Homestead just didn't make a lot of sense. Not his job to critique or edit. Just read. There's even a phone menu recording for Phoenix International Raceway.

"Ever feel like the monkey in the circus," he pondered, looking over the edge of the script.

One more, for Dover International Speedway, punctuated with, "Oh yeah, the monster kicked my ass."


"Rah," he said, ceding the couch to Greg Biffle for his turn in center ring.

But it was another task completed, another step taken in a job that involves more than driving a race car fast. Forty or 50 steps ahead would be the Chase-opener at Loudon, where he would finish fourth. Another win at Fontana, Calif., three weeks later would give him the points lead for the first time this season, when it was really beginning to matter.

After losing most of a substantial points lead after wrecking early at Texas, Johnson seized his fourth trophy a little tighter by winning at Phoenix last week. He leads Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin by 108 points.

In-progress dynasties are hard to dissect, and Johnson's dominance has been so numbing -- boring, according to critics and fans of ... well, everyone else -- it provides few pegs on which to attach a theory. Certainly, he is at the nexus of talent, team and opportunity. But there is also the simple fact that he works incredibly hard and finds the joy it in. That Knaus is the same -- with maybe a smidge more anxiety and a tad less joy until recent seasons -- makes for a potent, currently unbeatable, combination.

"I can tell you that they work as hard or harder than anybody else in the series, consistently, and they're both at the pinnacle of the sport," said Martin crew chief Alan Gustafson.

Yes, there are times when riding atop a golf cart after a few beers is a perfectly acceptable decision, but not between January and November. Not even when espousing the virtues of New York's best bowling alleys.

"I'm enjoying things, I'm going places, and I owe all that to Jimmie," Knaus said of his offseasons. "I had never had a vacation until 2002, when Jimmie and I went to Cabo San Lucas together, and it was like, man, there's something else to do other than racing."

But not right now. Until the trophy is hoisted on Sunday, it's just another day.

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