"The Biggest Race"

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Two-time Nextel Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has won 33 times at the highest level of NASCAR; foremost among those victories was his triumph in the 2006 Daytona 500. On the eve of a new season, Johnson took time out from his preparations for a Cup threepeat to sit down with SI and talk about the Great American Race and the place it holds in his heart.

SI:What's your earliest memory of the Daytona 500?

JJ: My earliest memory is watching the Brawl on the Backstretch [in 1979, when he was three]. I was watching it with my dad and my grandfather, and they loved it when Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough were beating each other up.

SI:When was your first visit to the track?

JJ: I went to the track in 1996 with [driver] Ron Hornaday Jr. I was racing off-road then, and he invited me to come down to the 500 and network. So I stayed at a condo with him, and actually Dale Jr. was staying at the condo at the time, which is kind of ironic and funny.

SI:When you saw the speedway for the first time, what ran through your mind?

JJ: I was impressed with it. I knew stock cars could go fast on short tracks, but to see the size of the facility was amazing. My first experience of seeing a car go by was on the backstretch. I heard the cars, and I ran over to the fence and leaned on it to see what was going on. ARCA practice was taking place, and I just couldn't believe how fast the cars were going and how close together they were. It was a rush.

SI:What's the craziest thing you've seen a fan do at Daytona?

JJ: A couple of years ago Jeff Gordon and I were hanging out at the Ocean Deck [a beachside club] on one of the down days. We had some fun, and then on the way back we saw a black minivan with a sticker on the back of the comic book character Calvin peeing on the number 24. So we pull up alongside and roll down the window. Jeff says, "Hey, what's up?" And the guy does a double take and yells, "Oh, Jeff Gordon. I'm your biggest fan! Oh, my God, I can't believe you're here."

Jeff is like, "What's up with the sticker on the back glass?" It was so funny to see that and how the guy was called out on it.

SI:Speaking of Jeff, is there one piece of advice he or another driver has given you that's helped you figure out what it takes to get around the track?

JJ: Jeff has spent more time talking to me about the draft and what goes on there than anyone else. But the biggest lessons I've learned have been on the track by myself, learning how to put myself in the right position at the right time to win, how to make a pass. People can talk to you and explain the fundamentals of it all day long, but until you're there and you spot the mistakes you make and experience it in person, it's impossible to [understand].

SI:What's it like when you're going 190 and the Big One erupts in front of you and all you see is a cloud of smoke?

JJ: Most of the time you're trying to figure out where that glob of cars is sliding and where they're going to go. You try to make adjustments and go in the other direction. Unfortunately, when you check up to process all that is taking place in front of you, someone often runs into the back of you.

SI:Where does your Daytona 500 victory in 2006 rank in your career?

JJ: It goes: my two championships and then the Daytona 500 trophy. It's the biggest race I've ever won.

SI:Other than yourself, who are the favorites to win this year's 50th running of the 500?

JJ: I think you have to look at the usual suspects, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Tony Stewart has a great history on the track, and he'll be a threat. But there are also two guys that have impressed me who haven't won at the track but have been real strong in the last few years, and that's Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch. Those two have had really great cars and have worked the draft well. Matt and Kurt have been knocking on the door for a while, and along with Jeff and Junior, I think they'll be the ones who will be hard to beat.