A Champ at Last

Nov. 27, 2006
Nov. 27, 2006

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Nov. 27, 2006

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A Champ at Last

A gritty racer under all that corporate polish, oft-frustrated Jimmie Johnson--NASCAR's premier driver over the past four years--dodged trouble at Homestead and finally won his first Nextel Cup points title

He drove down thefrontstretch at Homestead-Miami Speedway, cruising closer and closer to thefinish line of the final race of NASCAR's 2006 season. The white strip was just50 tantalizing yards in front of Jimmie Johnson, and a group of fans at theflag stand cheered for him to floor it. But Johnson's vehicle abruptly stopped30 feet short of the line, and he stepped out into the cool night air. Thegrandstands were nearly empty, and the 31-year-old Johnson, who two hoursearlier had clinched the Nextel Cup championship, let his eyes wander up to thedark South Florida sky as he measured the moment.

"It's hard to believe this is happening to me," said Johnson, whoseninth-place finish in the Ford 400 (behind winner Greg Biffle) was enough toearn him the title by 56 points over Matt Kenseth. "I don't think a lot ofpeople understand how hard the road was for me."

This is an article from the Nov. 27, 2006 issue Original Layout

Over the pastfive seasons no driver in NASCAR has been more consistently excellent thanJohnson. He has won more races (23), had more top five finishes (66) and spentmore weeks in the top 10 in the standings (175) than anyone else in the series.But Johnson has also been the Peyton Manning of NASCAR--a freakish talent withscary hand-eye coordination who couldn't win the big prize. In 2003 Johnsonfinished second in the standings behind Kenseth. In 2004 he came up eightpoints short of champion Kurt Busch. And last year he had a chance to overtakeTony Stewart in the season finale at Homestead, but he crashed and wound upfifth in the standings.

"It took somedisappointment for Jimmie to get here," says his car owner Rick Hendrick,whose drivers have now won six points titles. "But he's matured, and now,as a racer, he's the whole package."

This year Johnsonwon the Daytona 500, the All-Star Challenge and the Allstate 400 at theBrickyard--NASCAR's most prestigious events. No driver had ever swept thecircuit's three majors and taken the championship in the same season, butJohnson entered Sunday's Ford 400 with a 63-point lead over Kenseth. If hedidn't crash and if he didn't experience a mechanical breakdown, he knew thetitle would be his. If, if, if--Johnson had been there before.

Here he comes,striding through the glass doors at the Doral Resort in Miami. Dressed in blackslacks, a black golf shirt and shiny black shoes, Johnson lopes through thelobby 72 hours before the most important race of his career. He walks down along hallway and enters a room full of reporters. When the lights hit him,Johnson smiles as if posing for his yearbook picture. Later he charms a smallgroup with what he calls a story for "married guys" about how his wifewon't let him keep his "smelly" (her word) racing memorabilia in theirnew house. On this day, like every day, Johnson is the most camera-friendly andwell-spoken driver in NASCAR, which is why his sponsors love him--and whyhordes of fans despise him.

NASCAR fans wantto be able to relate to drivers, to see a bit of themselves inside that firesuit. But Johnson? He's married to the former Chandra Janway, a blonde,blue-eyed fashion model. He lives in a 12,000-square-foot mansion in a tonyCharlotte suburb, and he keeps an apartment in the trendy Manhattanneighborhood of Chelsea. He owns a Learjet and has a personal business manager.But what really galls the Johnson bashers--and the boos grew louder each weekof the Chase--is that he talks like an Ivy League grad (in fact, he neverfinished a year of college) and looks like a Hollywood leading man. JimmieJohnson? What could he possibly have in common with the blue-collar NASCARmasses?

Johnson's father,Gary, pondered that question as he zipped through the infield at Homestead in asouped-up golf cart last Saturday morning. "The boos hurt me a lot,"said Gary. "I know Jimmie can come off as corporate. When the cameras areon, he doesn't always say what he's really thinking because that's not theright time. But everyone should know that Jimmie wasn't born with a silverspoon in his mouth."

Gary and CathyJohnson raised Jimmie and his younger brothers, Jarit and Jessie, in atwo-bedroom house in El Cajon, Calif., in the foothills of the Laguna Mountains15 miles east of San Diego. For 15 years, Gary rose at 4 a.m. five days a weekand drove a truck for B.F. Goodrich. To help make ends meet, Cathy drove aschool bus. The Hell's Angels frequently rode their bikes through theneighborhood, and when Jimmie was four, Gary gave him his first motorizedwheels, a minibike that Gary had put together with scavenged parts. Garyattached training wheels to the bike, which topped out at 10 mph, and onChristmas Day 1976, Jimmie's life of speed began.

On weekends thefamily piled into Gary's 1972 Ford van and headed to the desert for campingtrips. At night the Johnsons slept in the van, and during the day the boys rodedirt bikes and dune buggies in the sand. Jimmie always pushed his bike to thelimit, and that scared Gary. After several of Jimmie's friends were injured inmotorcycle races--Jimmie won his first local championship at age eight--Garysteered his son into off-road truck racing when Jimmie was 12. "I wantedhim to be in a vehicle that had a roll bar," says Gary. "Crazy me, Ithought it would be safer."

The Chevy truckflipped end-over-end through the desert, tumbling over a 30-foot cliff into aravine. It was the autumn of 1994, and Johnson was competing in the Baja 1000,an off-road race in Mexico's Baja California Peninsula. The 1,000-mile racetook 22 hours or more to finish, and Johnson was leading the field when hereached a stretch of sand near San Javier. Darkness was falling, and the19-year-old Johnson had been at the wheel for more than nine hours. Whilecruising at 110 mph, Johnson shut his eyes and, for an instant, nodded off. Hemissed a turn. When Johnson flashed awake, one thought throbbed in his head asthe truck barreled out of control through the night: I'm going to die.

All four tiresexploded as the 4,000-pound truck cartwheeled down the cliff. The roll cageripped off. When the smoking vehicle finally clanked to a stop, it looked asthough it had been through a crushing machine at a junkyard. A dazed Johnsoncrawled out the window and plopped down on top of a boulder. He wasn'tinjured--"I'm still not sure why," he says--but no one knew where hewas. For hours Johnson sat and thought about his life in racing. In theafternoon a family walked by with a few mules, looking at Johnson as if he hadcrash-landed from the moon. In the evening Johnson nibbled on a granola bar andcontinued to contemplate what he needed to do to make it as a racer. More than20 hours passed before a rescue team reached him--a span of time that would bethe defining moment of Johnson's career in motor sports.

"I was young,and all I thought about was going fast and being aggressive," recallsJohnson. "Well, I realized that night in the desert that I needed to besmarter. I still needed to push the car, but also I needed to bring it homeclean. I needed to find that balance, and I began to find it that night inMexico."

Two years afterthat crash, Johnson moved across the country to Charlotte--the hub ofNASCAR--and into the living room of a house owned by Ron Hornaday, a veteranNASCAR driver whom Johnson had met at an auto show in Michigan in 1996. Johnsonhad no rent money to pay Hornaday, a fellow Californian, but he performedchores and frequently cooked his speciality: barbecued shrimp tacos."Jimmie was a clean-cut kid who just wanted to race," says Hornaday."He was the kind of kid you wanted to help."

Hornaday talkedup Johnson to his friends in NASCAR, and Johnson started hanging out inMooresville, N.C., at spots like Lancaster's Barbecue and a gas station deli atwhich, Hornaday told him, people in the business ate lunch. After a few monthsof handing out business cards and shaking every hand he could find, Johnsonlanded a ride in the short-track ASA series, a stepping stone to the BuschSeries. His career has been on the fast track ever since: He wonrookie-of-the-year honors in the ASA in '98, he landed a part-time Busch ridein '99, and in the fall of '00 he was hired by Jeff Gordon to drive the number48 Lowe's Chevrolet that Gordon co-owns with Hendrick.

"I had noidea that Jimmie would develop into a champion this quickly," says Gordon."A lot of fans think everything has been handed to him on a silver platterbecause he's so smooth, but they don't understand his background. It's made himhungry."

But as in theprevious two seasons, Johnson, who led the 2006 standings for 22 of the first26 weeks, sputtered at the start of the Chase. On Lap 88 of the Sylvania 300 atNew Hampshire International Speedway on Sept. 17, he got caught in achain-reaction accident and finished 39th, dropping him 139 points behind Chaseleader Kevin Harvick. That night his dad called and calmly told Jimmie,"Don't worry, you're a Johnson. We do everything the hard way."

Three weeks laterat Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, Johnson was running second behind DaleEarnhardt Jr. on the last lap of the UAW-Ford 500 when the rear of Johnson'sChevy was nudged by the car driven by teammate Brian Vickers. Johnson spun andfinished 24th. More significant, he dropped to eighth place in the Chase, 156points out of the lead, with six races to go. Even Johnson, an optimist, sensedthat his season was slipping away. Two days later Hendrick had a sit-down withJohnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, at the team's headquarters inCharlotte. "Just have fun and don't worry about the points," Hendricksaid. "The pressure is off."

That simple peptalk kick-started one of the strongest finishes to a season in NASCAR history.At Charlotte the next week Johnson came in second. Seven days later he won atMartinsville. Then came three more second-place runs. In five weeks Johnson hadrisen from eighth to first in the standings. Before Homestead, Johnson wasasked what worried him the most. His one-word response was telling:"Myself."

As the laps wounddown on Sunday, Johnson's parents fidgeted nervously in his pit stall. Cathyturned her back to the track, unable to watch. Johnson's car had hit a piece ofdebris on Lap 15, and he had fallen to 40th place while his crew put a piece ofduct tape over the hole in his grill. But Johnson didn't panic. He patientlyweaved his way through the field, taking few chances. When he crossed the lineto win the title at last, the emotions in his pit overflowed.

Gary huggedCathy. Johnson's friend Mike Hampton, the Atlanta Braves pitcher, high-fivedeveryone in sight. Chandra jumped over the pit wall and ran through the infieldgrass in her black high heels, trying to find her husband. Her eyes were wet,but what would Jimmie do? Would his corporate face finally melt now that he hadreached the summit of American motor sports?

Chandra arrivedat the finish-line celebration, but still she couldn't find Jimmie. Minuteslater he hopped out of his car. In the mob of his teammates, Johnson found hiswife. The two embraced. Tears fell from Johnson's eyes, and just then, 12 yearsto the day after he nearly died in the Mexican desert, the soul of a truckdriver's son was finally laid bare for everyone to see.


Check to see final grades for every Nextel Cup driver and get a lookahead to the 2007 season.

Johnson's racing approach changed after his car FLEWOFF A CLIFF in the 1994 Baja 1000, leaving him dazed but lucky to be alive.
A hole in his grill required a patch job (orange rectangle) and dropped Johnsonto 40th, but he climbed back to finish ninth and claim thechampionship.
After their boss told them to stop worrying and have fun, Johnson and crewchief Knaus became an unbeatable duo.
She may turn up her nose at his racing memorabilia, but Chandra was all smilesfor the new king.