News & Media

In L.A., drivers fill roles that aren't always familiar

March 25, 2011, David Caraviello,

FONTANA, Calif. -- The drive from Hollywood to Auto Club Speedway is a little more than an hour in light traffic, a journey that takes a visitor from the rock clubs and glittering billboards of the Sunset Strip to the snow-capped mountains that loom above the Inland Empire. They are two very separate worlds brought together each time NASCAR stops in Southern California, when some drivers hear the call for action before the command to start engines.

Promotional tie-ins, friendships, and the celebrity quotient of NASCAR's top competitors all combine to form a natural connection with Tinseltown. Which is why, a day before he slipped into his firesuit at the 2-mile track on Friday, five-time defending Cup series champion Jimmie Johnson found himself on a sound stage at Sony Studios in Los Angeles, playing himself in an upcoming episode of a new network sitcom.

"The cool part to me is not that I got to meet them, but that they actually wanted to meet me. That blows my mind. I mean, that is Jennifer Lopez, and she wanted to meet me? It is just crazy."


He wasn't alone. Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne and Joey Logano attended a broadcast of American Idol. Mark Martin made an appearance Friday morning with celebrity fitness trainer Jillian Michaels. Jeff Gordon, long a veteran of the television talk-show circuit -- he was a guest on Jay Leno's The Tonight Show the week after his victory at Phoenix ? stopped by Ellen DeGeneres' daytime program to promote the Pixar film Cars 2, in which he has a small part. For drivers racing in Southern California, such things are almost as common as a run to In-N-Out Burger.

"I think it's very cool to be on the show," Gordon said. "I think Ellen and even Jay, I did Leno a couple of weeks ago, they were awesome. It definitely has an impact on the things that we're promoting and talking about."

Johnson's role was in an episode of Breaking In, a FOX program that's slated to debut in April starring his friend Christian Slater, who is also serving as grand marshal of Sunday's Sprint Cup race. The two met once at the race track, and stayed in touch. When the idea for a racing-themed episode came up, Slater reached out to Johnson. Director Fred Savage, the Wonder Years star, has since moved behind the lens and built a solid track record with edgy comedies like Party Down and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia -- came to the recent Las Vegas weekend, and the result was a script where Johnson retains Slater's investigative service to find out who's interfering with his radio during races.

"We spent a lot of time just doing the same thing over and over," said Johnson, who in his day job makes repeated left turns. "They would change cameras and get different angles, close-ups of each person involved. Five or six hours went by, and we taped a two-minute piece just for that. It was a long day with the different scenes we ended up taping. The cast, there's some characters on that cast and there wasn't a dull moment all day long. I had a great experience with it. It's an edgy show. Some of the stuff that the actors are going through, there's no way it will make television, but it was good for laughs and had a great time with it."

Bayne's experience was a different. The 20-year-old Wood Brothers driver sat in the front row with Logano for Thursday's broadcast of American Idol, and was star struck. "I have gotten to do some really cool things recently, but last night was right up there," he said. Afterward, he had the opportunity to meet the judges.

"The cool part to me is not that I got to meet them, but that they actually wanted to meet me," Bayne said. "That blows my mind. I mean, that is Jennifer Lopez, and she wanted to meet me? It is just crazy."

Johnson, who has done his share of commercials and once made a guest appearance in the since-canceled TV program "Las Vegas," has no acting training. "Trial and error," he said of his approach. That changed on Friday morning when he made his way from Los Angeles and slipped into a much more familiar role -- that of favorite at a track where he's won five times, and hasn't placed outside the top 10 since 2006. And yet, even that familiar storyline could feature some unexpected twists and turns. Johnson is seventh in points, and doesn't yet have a clear indication on how strong his No. 48 team is on the intermediate tracks that dominate the NASCAR circuit. Sunday will provide a sneak peek.

"Every lap is going to help us progress our cars," Johnson said. "If we leave here with a poor run, it's right in front of us. We know we have a lot of work to do. I feel like we have a direction, and hopefully we're competitive and run well. This weekend's race will really tell the tale."

Johnson has won four of the past seven Cup events at Fontana, but this week has more modest goals in mind. "I know we're here and I have expectations and hopes of winning, but if I really think it through, I would say that a top-five run would be our goal," he said. "I don't want to lose anymore points, and want to continue to build a gap between where we are and 10th. There's still a chance that we could win here. We've come here before struggling and have found a way to win. I'm optimistic about our chances."

Win or lose Sunday, one thing is certain -- the next day Johnson will be back in front of the camera, shooting a commercial for his primary car sponsor. In Southern California, the eye of the spotlight never blinks for very long.