As Jimmie Johnson walked through the garage at Michigan
International Speedway on Sunday morning, a man in his mid-50s
with a radiant grin trailed in the driver's shadow. In fact, on
most race weekends the soft-spoken older man, Johnson's father,
Gary, is by his son's side. For the past three years Gary has
driven Jimmie's motor home from track to track, traveling close
to 300,000 miles across the highways of America so he can see his
son race. "The best Father's Day gift I could give my dad is a
win," said Johnson a few hours before the DHL 400 in Brooklyn,
Mich. "He deserves it."
Johnson didn't make it to Victory Lane, but he and his dad still
had reason to celebrate after the race, which was won by Ryan
Newman. Johnson crossed the finish line fourth, but because Dale
Earnhardt Jr. struggled to a 21st-place finish, Johnson jumped
past Little E to claim the season points lead. The hottest driver
in NASCAR over the last two months, Johnson has had seven top
five finishes in the last eight races and has led 758 of the last
2,414 laps (31.4%) in that time.
"I have 100 percent confidence in my car, my team, my abilities,"
Johnson says. "Those all play off one another, and that allows us
to bounce back even if we have a bad week."
Johnson hasn't had many bad weeks lately. The best illustration
of his recent dominance came on June 13 at Pocono Raceway. On Lap
156 of 200 he was leading the race when the caution flag came
out. Moments later a NASCAR official standing at the end of pit
road prematurely waved the green flag, signaling that the pits
were open. Johnson, at the head of the line of slowly circling
cars, had already passed the pit entrance, but most of the rest
of the field dived in for fuel and new tires. Though the official
had clearly made an error, NASCAR took no corrective action to
award Johnson the track position he had lost. It didn't matter.
Though Johnson fell to sixth because of NASCAR's mistake, his
Chevrolet was so powerful that he regained the lead with 26 laps
left and took the checkered flag in what has been the most
impressive performance of the season.
The 28-year-old Johnson, a native of El Cajon, Calif., has been
running with the leaders ever since arriving on the scene in
2002. He finished fifth in points as a rookie and second last
season. Asked to explain his success, Johnson always points to
his tight relationship with crew chief Chad Knaus, who just may
be the second-mellowest guy in the sport behind Johnson. They
have performed so well together that Johnson has finished ahead
of teammate and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon in 21 of the
past 33 races.
"Jimmie is a special driver," says Gordon. "He'll win a
championship one of these days."
That day, in fact, may be Nov. 21--the date of NASCAR's final
race of 2004, in Homestead, Fla.