Monday February 8th, 2010

Jimmie Johnson is like every other viewer of HBO's 24/7 Jimmie Johnson: Race to Daytona: He has no idea what will go into each show. He watched the second episode last Tuesday in his Charlotte home with his wife, Chandra.

"It's exciting and nerve-wracking to watch it," Johnson said late last week as he sat on a picnic table outside his motor home parked in the infield at Daytona International Speedway. "I've spent so much time with the HBO guys that I forget that they're around. But I've been really impressed and happy with the show. It's so dramatic and there are so many different story lines they could follow. It's been leaving people wanting more. At least that's the way it seems from all the text messages I've been getting. It's obvious that most of the people at the track have been watching."

The show focuses on three main characters: Johnson, his wife, and his crew chief, Chad Knaus. In the second episode, Johnson traveled by himself from Charlotte to run in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, a sports car event that takes place on a winding road course inside the famed speedway. Less than ten minutes into his first practice session, Johnson wrecked the car. But we don't see this. Johnson ends up explaining what happened to the cameras.

"They just didn't get it on tape," Johnson says. "It was too bad."

Another quibble with the show: In Episode One, Chandra describes how she sometimes can't believe that it's really her husband out there going 180 miles per hour and doing crazy things behind the wheel. As I was watching, I expected HBO to use this moment to describe the dangers of the sport and explore the subject of how these drivers are literally risking their lives every time they slide behind the seat.

Johnson has been in some positively frightening crashes over the years -- his 2007 fiery crash in the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard was one of the ten worst I've seen in my eight years on the beat -- and this seemed to me like the perfect place for HBO to give viewers an up-close look at what it's like to slam into the wall at 180 mph. Maybe the producers are saving this for a later episode, but to me, this struck me as an opportunity lost.

That said, the show has been a highly intelligent look at how Johnson and his team are preparing for the Daytona 500. Knaus may be the hardest working man in NASCAR, and this has been vividly brought to life. The scene of him eating dinner alone in his kitchen late one evening while drinking a glass of red wine and studying his computer sums up succinctly Knaus' work ethic.

"That's Chad right there," Johnson says. "He's as driven as anyone I've met."

The third episode airs on Tuesday, Feb. 9 at 10 p.m. ET and the final show will be on Feb. 16 at 10. There already are whispers that this could end up being an award-winning series. No doubt, the show will be helped if Johnson does something special in his qualifying race on Thursday and in the 500 on Sunday.

So far, Johnson has been mediocre by his standards at Daytona. He's struggled in the early practices, finished fifth in qualifying, and came in 13th in the Budweiser Shootout last Saturday night. But remember this: the four-time defending champ has a long history of turning it on when it matters most.

"There's basically nothing the cameras won't see from here until the end of the Daytona 500," Johnson says. "Hopefully it will be a few days worth remembering."

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