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Johnson recalls full-body cramp, can relate to LeBron

June 06, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Driver discusses laying on the floor until getting help from Jeff Gordon

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LONG POND, Pa. -- Jimmie Johnson may be able to joke about it now, but it was no laughing matter at the time. He remembers lying on the floor of his motorhome, his entire body convulsed in dehydration cramps, and having to knock his cellphone off a table so he could reach it to call for help.

"I don't know if you've ever had a cramp," the six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion said, "but try dialing a phone like that."

Plenty of people on Twitter were taking shots Thursday night at LeBron James, the basketball superstar who had to be carried off the court after suffering from dehydration cramps during the opening game of the NBA's championship series. Temperatures reportedly climbed to 90 degrees at court level because the air conditioning was out in the arena in San Antonio. Although NASCAR drivers routinely deal with much hotter conditions inside their cars, you won't find Johnson knocking James for a condition many non-athletes have never faced and often don't fully understand.

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He would know from experience. The episode that left him lying on his motorhome floor began with a Grand-Am Series endurance race that Johnson participated in on the same 2007 weekend as the summer Sprint Cup event at Daytona. After a full slate of NASCAR events, Johnson also qualified and practiced the sports car before suffering an electrical problem during the race that knocked out his drinking system. Ten minutes before a scheduled driver change, he headed to pit road -- he couldn’t push the brake pedal hard enough to get the car stopped, forcing him to miss a chicane on the backstretch.

"I got out of the car, tried to get cooled down and have some fluids. But about an hour later, I started cramping. And I actually went into a full-body cramp," Johnson said at Pocono Raceway. "I was actually stranded inside my motorhome on the floor. I wish I had a picture of what I looked like. I tell you, every muscle in my body locked up."

No wonder, then, even the fittest drivers can be quite sensitive to the prospect heat-related issues. Carl Edwards remembers his first start in the Camping World Truck Series, at Memphis in June of 2002, when it was so hot he didn't realize his vehicle was on fire. Days at Indianapolis in July, Dover in June, or even Homestead in November can be particularly trying.

"You just get used to the heat," Edwards said. "I don't know if there are physiological things that happen, or if all of it is psychological."

To Edwards, the heat is now all part of the challenge. For drivers, conditions are also much better than they used to be -- Matt Kenseth said that when he first broke into NASCAR, the seats didn't fit as well and the cars weren't as well-vented as they are now, a combination that could wear a competitor out. The 2003 premier-series champion remembers suffering from dehydration at one race at Charlotte in 1999, one year after he had burned a part of his heel about the size of a half-dollar during a Nationwide event at Dover.

Some things never change.

"Even now, I don’t think of it much anymore, but at Dover during the race I was lifting my heels off the floor on the straightaway because it was burning my heel," Edwards said, referring to last week's Sprint Cup event. "Everybody does that all the time, but the first few times you realize, 'Wow, I think my heel is burning.' You don't realize everything in the car is that hot. Those guys back in the day without the fans and ducts, those were some men. That is tough. It had to be really, really hot."

As for Johnson, on that day at Daytona seven years ago? While he wasn't carried off in the public manner James was Thursday night, he still needed help. He called his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, whose motorhome was parked next door.

"As he came to my bus, it took him two or three minutes to stop laughing at me," Johnson remembered. But Gordon got Johnson to the infield care center, where his teammate needed three bags of intravenous fluids before he started to feel better.

Which is why Friday, Six-Time wasn't busting on LeBron -- because he's been there.

"That was a very, very tough experience for me," Johnson said. "I didn’t cramp in the car itself, but after it got me bad. That was a tough one."

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