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Jimmie Steps Out

Nov. 24, 2008
Nov. 24, 2008

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Nov. 24, 2008

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Jimmie Steps Out

NASCAR's best driver on the track, sports' next celebrity on the street: the two sides of Cup champ Jimmie Johnson

IT'S EIGHTO'CLOCK on a Tuesday night in South Beach, 25 miles and a world away fromHomestead-Miami Speedway, where in five days Jimmie Johnson will try to makehistory in the 2008 Sprint Cup season finale. But on this evening NASCAR'sreigning champion has traded his firesuit for a charcoal-gray Dolce &Gabbana and parked his racing Chevy to ride in an enormous black Denali. He'sin the backseat, sitting close to his wife, Chandra, who's in black-and-whiteMarc Jacobs. ("Flowy" is how she describes the dress.) They are ontheir way to a charity gala at Jungle Island, an animal theme park inMiami.

This is an article from the Nov. 24, 2008 issue

As the SUVcarries them past the clubs and the street performers and the tourists aglowwith sunburn, they talk about everything but racing, musing on such things aswhat they might name a yacht should they ever buy one—she says Simpatico, hesays Worthless—or whether they'd like to own a vineyard. (Absolutely!)

The setting, soat odds with the gas-fumes-and-big-box-corporate-blandness that surroundsNASCAR, prompts another passenger to wonder: Why do sports fans know JimmieJohnson only as the guy pushing his Lowe's number 48 into the lead, burningrubber in the winner's circle and then thanking sponsors and crew for making itall happen? Why don't they know him as a world-traveling, multidimensional,surprisingly loquacious sports star? There's a pause before Chandra, lookingstraight at Jimmie as she answers, says, "You're too nice." He smileswhen she brings up his pretty-boy image. "Maybe," Chandra says with alaugh, "if you were an arrogant ass, you'd get more attention."

"It used tokeep me up at night," says Jimmie, gazing out the tinted window. "Butnot anymore." He takes a breath, and the smile disappears. "I can'tthink about all that," he says. "I just want to win anotherchampionship."

ON SUNDAY thisson of a construction equipment operator and a mother who drove a school busraced to glory that even Richard Petty, David Pearson and Dale Earnhardt neverachieved: a third straight driver's championship at NASCAR's highest level. Byfinishing 15th in the Ford 400, Johnson beat Carl Edwards by 69 points in theseason standings to join Cale Yarborough (1976, '77, '78) as the only driversin the 59-year history of NASCAR to three-peat. Johnson entered the Homesteadrace with a nearly insurmountable 141-point lead over Edwards, allowing him torace conservatively and avoid trouble. He finished 28.6 seconds behind Edwards,who took the checkered flag and the consolation of winning more Cup races(nine) than any other driver in 2008.

What better timeto recognize Jimmie—that's the given name, not James, of the 33-year-old nativeof El Cajon, Calif., who grew up racing dirt bikes and off-road trucks—for whathe is: the greatest stock car driver of the 21st century.

In 108 Cup racesover the last three years Jimmie had a series-high 22 wins (10 more than hisclosest rival, Edwards), and led all drivers in top five finishes (48) and top10s (70). He was especially dominant in the 10-race Chase for the Cup eachseason, or "money time," as it's called in the garage. In the 30 Chaseraces over that three-year span Jimmie reached Victory Lane eight times(27.7%); the only other driver who was even in the Chase the last three years,Matt Kenseth, had one win (3.3%).

But unlike withmany past champions—and this is one reason Jimmie remains somewhat of amystery, even on the track, to die-hard fans—Jimmie's excellence isn't easilydiscerned. Earnhardt, for instance, was a classic banger who wouldn't hesitateto knock another driver into the wall if he thought he needed to. And JeffGordon, during his three championship seasons in the 1990s, raced with a keensense of anticipation and freakish car control. But Jimmie's signature talentisn't something that can be seen from the stands.

"Jimmie hasthe ability to handle multiple thoughts at the same time like no one else inNASCAR," says Jack Stark, a sports psychologist who has worked with morethan a dozen NASCAR drivers, including Johnson, as well as with hundreds ofplayers in college football and the NFL. "On the track he juggles wherehe's going, where he needs to be, what he's feeling in the car and how he needsto express that to his crew chief so the right changes can be made to the carat the next pit stop. Most guys can't stay focused for the full four hours of arace, but Jimmie can. He's like Peyton Manning in that they both haveproblem-solving minds.

"Plus—andthis is a big reason why Jimmie has been successful—he's a genuinely nice guy,and his crew feels a great sense of loyalty to him. Ron Malec, his car chief,could go anywhere and double his salary, but Ron stays because Jimmie caresabout other people. They basically have no turnover on that team. And, ofcourse, it helps to have a crew chief like Chad Knaus."

FEROCIOUSLYFOCUSED and as creative as he is analytical, the 37-year-old Knaus has been asvital to the establishment of this stock car dynasty as the driver, and thecrew chief's most impressive work came this season. After the team had anuncharacteristically sluggish start—the low point coming at Las Vegas lastMarch 2, when Jimmie finished 29th and was turning laps a full two secondsslower than race winner Edwards—Knaus put his crew on a grueling work scheduleto find ways to catch up. Nearly every week for three months they would travelaround the country to tracks not on the Cup circuit and conduct test sessionsto find additional speed. Knaus would place data acquisition devices at severalpoints on the car—think multiple monitors in an intensive-care unit—and afterJimmie ran different lines around the track, Knaus would carefully analyze themeasurements. Tire temperature, traction, shock absorber performance....

Knaus's diligencequickly paid off with a win at Phoenix on April 12. More important, while othertop drivers were peaking early in the season—most notably Kyle Busch, who woneight of the first 22 races—Jimmie was coming on as the Chase approached.Everyone else in the garage knew they were in trouble when the 48 Chevy won thefinal two races of the regular season.

"The way youwin championships in the Chase era is to use the first 26 races to get readyfor the last 10, and Jimmie and Chad do that better than anyone else," saysDarrell Waltrip, the three-time Cup winner who now calls the races for Fox."They have as much engineering support at Hendrick Motorsports as anyone inthe sport. Heck, I don't see why they can't win a fourth straight championshipnext season."

WHEN THE Denalipulls up at Jungle Island, for the BeLive 2008 Charity Gala hosted by Cupdriver Juan Pablo Montoya, the media and fans along the red carpet turn to seeJimmie and Chandra. Smiling naturally and posing for photographers, theyexchange glances, touch each other lightly. Jimmie is as comfortable in theglare of celebrity as he is on the banked turns of Lowe's Motor Speedway.

He took a DaleCarnegie course early in his racing career. He doesn't say anything within azip code of controversy. Among NASCAR beat writers he is considered boring andvanilla and robotic. "When I started racing, I didn't have much going forme, other than that I could say all the right things—almost to a fault,"Jimmie says. "I can be freaking out inside, but then I open my mouth and Isound calm. I don't know where this device comes from. It helps me in racingbecause you never want to lose your cool, but it's also probably kept peoplefrom getting to know the real me."

Away from thetrack, team owner Rick Hendrick says, "nobody has more fun thanJimmie." The ultimate guy's guy, according to one of his close friends,Noah Lazes, an event planner in Charlotte, who offers this snapshot: On themorning of the AFC and NFC championship games two years ago Jimmie phoned himin Charlotte: "You want to have a man day and go see the NFLgames?"

"Uh, games,plural?" responded Lazes.

"Comeon," Jimmie said. "Two guys, two games, one airplane and a bottle ofGoose. Let's go."

An hour laterthey were airborne in Jimmie's six-seat Gulfstream G450, heading fromCharlotte, where the Johnsons own a 12,000-square-foot house, to Chicago forthe Saints-Bears kickoff. Then they flew to Indianapolis to watch the Patriotsplay the Colts. "The thing you've got to realize about Jimmie is that hissuccess has afforded him the chance to do amazing things," Lazes says."As serious as he is at the track, he's as fun-loving away from it. I wishmore people saw that side."

Hendrick saw thatside a few days after the 2006 season, when Jimmie called to report that he'djust had an "accident" while playing in a charity golf tournament inLecanto, Fla. Full of an afternoon's worth of liquid courage, Jimmie had hoppedon the back of a friend's moving golf cart, climbed onto the roof (at thefull-throated urging of spectators) and pretended he was surfing. Theimprobable target proved too tempting for players in the following group, whobegan hitting golf balls at Jimmie. One of the balls startled the driver of thecart; he swerved, sending the surfer tumbling onto the fairway. Jimmie splithis lip and broke his left wrist.

The injuriesdidn't cause him to miss a race, but Jimmie feared he might have lost therespect of his fans and the support of his sponsor, Lowe's. (Not the case atall.) "I can be a jackass," he says. "I sometimes wish people couldhear the voices in my head because there's some crazy-ass s— in mybrain."

AT A quiet tablein the haute-Chinese supper club Phillipe—all red, white and black lacquer inthe new Gansevoort hotel on SouthBeach—Jimmie is sipping a glass of Napa Valleycabernet. Just half a glass because he has qualifying for the Ford 400tomorrow. He puts his hand on his wife's knee and says, "My best attributeas a driver is my focus, my level of concentration, and having Chandi in mylife allows me to not worry about things outside of racing when I walk throughthe gates each weekend. This sounds corny, but Chandi and I are teammates.We're in love, and she gives me total peace of mind."

They met in NewYork City in the spring of 2002. Jimmie was in town for a quick pleasure tripand was learning his way around with the help of Hendrick teammate andestablished Manhattanite Jeff Gordon. Chandra had just moved to the city andwas working as a model for the Wilhelmina agency. They met at a party. ChandraJanway, the daughter of a chiropractor and a stay-at-home mom, was raised inMuskogee, Okla.—in high school she had a pet turkey named Malcolm ("Hedisappeared one November," Jimmie jokes)—and got a communications degree atthe University of Oklahoma. They started dating, Jimmie rented an apartment inManhattan, and in 2004 they were married, before 150 guests on the island ofSt. Bart's. Chandra retains a certain Midwest dignity. ("I don't go groceryshopping in designer clothes," she says.) "The perfect woman" ishow Jimmie describes her.

Most NASCARcouples stay close to Charlotte, the hub of the sport, even in the off-season,but Jimmie and Chandra keep a loft apartment in the Manhattan neighborhood ofChelsea. They spend off weekends in the Hamptons, and recent vacations haveincluded trips to Paris and Cape Town, South Africa. Beyond the racing crowd,they see friends such as Nick Lachey, Tony Hawk, Atlanta Braves pitcher MikeHampton and former NFL player Jason Sehorn and his wife, actress AngieHarmon.

"Racing hasgiven me the chance to do some wonderful things in my life, and Chandi and Itake advantage of that," says Jimmie, who over the past year earned anestimated $23 million in winnings and endorsements. "But the bottom line isthat I'm a regular guy who likes to have a good time when I'm not racing. Atthe end of the day, and this is the truth, I'm still just a jackass from ElCajon."

It's mondaymorning, the day after the season wrapped at Homestead, and Jimmie is riding inthe back of another black SUV—this one carrying him through the Connecticutcountryside. Chandra's back in Charlotte, and he's starting in on a round ofinterviews as daunting as any Chase. He has 11 television and radio shows linedup in the next few hours, and when he looks at his cellphone, he sees 111congratulatory text messages—many from those famous friends, including Hawk,Troy Aikman and Tony Gonzalez. "They just keep coming," Jimmie says,looking at the screen. "I'll never make it through them all."

"The way you win championships in the Chase era isto use the first 26 races to get ready for the last 10," says Waltrip,"and Jimmie and Chad do that BETTER THAN ANYONE. Heck, I don't see why theycan't win a fourth."
"When I started racing," says Jimmie, "Ididn't have much going for me, other than that I could say ALL THE RIGHTTHINGS—almost to a fault. It's helped because you never want to lose yourcool."
"Having Chandi in my life allows me to not worryabout things outside of racing each weekend," says Johnson. "Thissounds corny, but CHANDI AND I ARE TEAMMATES."

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Lars Anderson goes behind the scenes with Jimmie Johnson on and off the trackand breaks down his chances for a four-peat.

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PHOTOPhotograph by Fred VuichFLORIDA KEY Johnson needed only a safe run at Homestead-Miami to win his record-tying third straight Cup. A 15th-place finish on Sunday sealed the deal.PHOTOJASON SMITH/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR [Seecaption above]PHOTONIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCKTEAM SPIRIT Johnson, who smokes his tires in victory thanks in part to the flawless work of his crew under Knaus (far right), credits Chandra for helping him focus.PHOTOROBERT BECK[See caption above]PHOTOFRED VUICH[See caption above]PHOTOMICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY[See caption above]PHOTOFRED VUICH[See caption above]PHOTOBILL SCOTT/APRACING HISTORY Yarborough (left) won his titles before Jimmie (center, at age five, and as a Cup rookie in '02) turned a wheel.PHOTOCOURTESY OF JIMMIE JOHNSON[See caption above]PHOTONIGEL KINRADE[See caption above]PHOTOTODD WARSHAW/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCARSO CLOSE Edwards (below, in red) made a Chase of it, but didn't catch Johnson (with, from left, Hendrick, Chandra and Knaus).PHOTOFRED VUICH[See caption above]