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Johnson's come a long way, yet he's still the same

December 04, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Johnson's career accomplishments have only made him more humble

LAS VEGAS -- When Jimmie Johnson was racing in the Nationwide Series, he often made appearances on behalf of his sponsor that had him sitting outside of a convenience store under a pop-up tent, handing out autograph cards along with samples of the headache-relief brand that was on the hood of his car. He didn’t always make much of an impression.

"They thought I worked for Excedrin, and wondered where the race car driver was," Johnson said, laughing. "Things have changed a lot since then."

They have -- and they haven't. Johnson is now a six-time champion of NASCAR's premier series, on the short list of the greatest drivers ever, and on the doorstep of matching the sport's record for total titles at the highest level. And yet in many ways, he's still the exact same guy who once handed out product samples outside a drug store, the same person who shook so many hands and handed out so many business cards trying to break through, the same dude from Southern California who enjoys a cold Corona. Johnson has come a long way, and yet he's remained in the same place all along.

Aside from his innate talent behind the wheel -- when it comes to clean lines and ruthless efficiency on the race track, the Hendrick Motorsports driver is probably on a par with greats like Michael Schumacher and Jim Clark -- the beauty of Jimmie Johnson is that through it all he's remained so true to himself. He has six championships and an ironclad legacy, but he's still relatively uncomplicated. On and off the track, he keeps things simple. He values loyalty, minimizes distractions, and thrives on long-term partnerships. All that may make him easy to mischaracterize, but it also makes him genuine.

Because honestly, it's difficult to get more genuine than a true American success story like Johnson, who grew up in a household he called "lower middle class," the son of a school bus driver and a heavy equipment operator. No question Johnson benefitted from a few people who believed in him, from Chevrolet executive Herb Fishel to Jeff Gordon to Ricky Hendrick. But he also made a lot of it happen on his own, learning how to network at an age when many young drivers are singularly-focused on speed, being able to sell himself to corporate executives, and delivering once he finally climbed into top equipment. If there's ever been an ideal by-the-bootstraps model for aspiring drivers, it's the former and current Sprint Cup Series champion.

And not just in how to make it -- but how to handle the success once they have. Having been on hand for Johnson's first start in the Sprint Cup Series, on a trying weekend at Charlotte in the fall of 2001 after his friend Blaise Alexander had been killed in an ARCA event, yours truly can attest that there is virtually no difference between the Johnson of then and the Johnson of now, except for that perpetual five o'clock shadow and six big trophies on the mantle. A lot of people see that steely demeanor and presume it's arrogance, when in truth it springs from something entirely different -- humility.

Maintaining that, through all the years and all the race wins and all the championships, has been just as impressive as maintaining performance over so many seasons on the race track. Where does it come from? The simple way in which he was raised, the enthusiasm for racing that was handed down from his father, and the struggles he went through trying to get to where he is now.

"Honestly, I have to give credit to the lack of success I had through a large part of my career. I did well, I did enough to be noticed, I had Chevrolet's support. They did what they could. I made it from one division to the next, I had enough success just to kind of be noticed and continue forward progress," Johnson said at the NASCAR Motorsports Marketing Forum that kicked off Champions Week.

"But all those years of trying to survive -- it really shaped me into who I am today. So once the success came, it didn't affect me all that much. Sure, everyone has an ego, and it feels damn good to win all these races and championships, I'm not going to lie. But at the end of the day, I really identified with my passion and why I want to race. I've never raced for trophies. I've always raced for the experiences that have happened, on the dirt bike or in the car. There's something in competition that I can't get away from. That’s what draws me to it."

Certainly, he's not alone there. But in terms of career accomplishments, he's reached rarefied heights indeed, and at age 38 he's far from finished. The unrelenting nature of those five consecutive championships made Johnson something of a polarizing figure in NASCAR -- he won so much in such a relatively short period of time, it rubbed some the wrong way. This title, though, feels different. The response Johnson received at Homestead-Miami Speedway both before and after he clinched his sixth crown was overwhelmingly positive. Maybe the two-year break helped. Maybe people are beginning to appreciate the history unfolding before them.

Regardless, Johnson could sense it. "There was a lot of cheering, through all the social channels, a lot of respect being shown for the 48," he said in the days immediately following Homestead. "I can't tell you how many things I've seen -- 'Not usually cheering for you, but congrats, respect.' At the end of the day, that's what I would hope for. People don't have to be my fan. But I'm a very respectful person. When respect is shown to me or handed out to me, I take that and appreciate it."

From Jimmie Johnson, who at the same time manages to be a six-time Sprint Cup champion as well as just a simple dude from Southern California, no one would expect anything less.

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