News & Media

Caraviello: Once again, Johnson the calm amid the storm

May 11, 2011, David Caraviello,

He was just 10 or 11 years old, not even a teenager yet, but Jimmie Johnson was still every inch the competitor then that he is now. He was racing motorcycles for his local track championship when a rider in front of him went down. Johnson, trailing him into the corner, went down as well. The future NASCAR champion went to pick up his bike -- and got shoved back down to the ground by his opponent. And suddenly, Johnson was involved in a situation it's difficult to envision him in today.

A fight. The two little motocross racers were on the ground, grappling with one another. As he remembers it, Johnson got back up on his bike first, and shoved the other kid down. After the race, he launched his motorcycle over toward the pit area, knocking his adversary off his bike one more time. Then he turned around, and saw -- his parents. He'll never forget the look on their faces.

"We get right to the edge and then realize ... we shouldn't do any more damage than we've already done."


"At that moment, when I turned around and saw my parents, my dad's shocked face and my mom's shocked face that I acted that way, I think there's something from that moment that kind of stuck with me," the five-time defending Cup Series champion said. "In most cases, I feel bad or guilty after acting like that. It's been that way through school and racing and all kinds of other things. But there's just something in that moment when I was 10, 11 years old, I realized I didn't like how I felt after that. I was kind of embarrassed of it."

He's been called boring, vanilla, and worse by those members of a fan base that prize fireworks and fisticuffs, but at a time of year when drivers are raging over the radio and feuds are turning physical, Johnson's above-the-fray demeanor once again stands out. He's had ample opportunity to go ballistic -- the No. 48 car was junk for much of the same Richmond race where Martin Truex Jr. fired his over-the-wall crew and Kurt Busch compared his team to a monkey having relations with a football. At the same Darlington track where Ryan Newman and Juan Montoya reportedly rumbled inside the NASCAR hauler and Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch rumbled live on pit road, Johnson's car sustained damage from contact with Montoya and then was penalized after his crew missed a lug nut.

So had Johnson lit into his pit crew over the radio, or stormed off toward another driver afterward to demand answers, it would have fit the theme of what's been a stormy two weeks on NASCAR's premier series. But that's not the Double J way. This is a driver who learned from his parents at an early age how to keep passions in check, how to even out the emotional highs and lows of competition, how to value the meaning of sportsmanship. The five-time champion is someone who stays composed in the most trying of times, who in moments of conflict tries to end hostility rather than continue it, who lets very little get in the way of the ultimate goal of winning races and championships. No wonder he's second in the standings heading to two of his best race tracks, and firmly in the mix for title No. 6.

No question, there are times when he gets angry, when he uses choice words to tell his spotter to ask a lap-down driver to get out of the way, when he gives terse, clipped answers to crew chief Chad Knaus' questions. He has moments when the displeasure bubbles to the surface, like at Bristol his rookie season when he directed an obscene gesture at Robby Gordon, or last month at Martinsville when he publicly chastised NASCAR for a pit-road speeding penalty that he had interpreted incorrectly (in both cases, he later apologized). But such episodes are rare. Spats with other drivers are usually followed by a phone call or text message the next day. Frustration over a poor-performing car usually spawns a more concerted effort to get things turned around.

That's just what unfolded two weeks ago at Richmond, when Johnson salvaged an eighth-place finish out of a vehicle that seemed downright uncompetitive for much of the race. How often does that happen, that Johnson and Knaus wring a top-10 effort out of a car that shouldn't finish anywhere near that well? So often that no one is surprised anymore. "It's within us somewhere," Johnson said. "It's kind of in our makeup, in our DNA."

Johnson will admit, he was angry in the car for much of that race. Listening to his radio, he was certainly agitated after the contact with Montoya at Darlington, too. But in both cases, he managed his frustrations rather let them overwhelm him. His unflappability behind the wheel has become one of the great hallmarks of his championship reign, and it's a trait that's unlikely to diminish over time. Other drivers get angry, say things over the radio they later regret, hunt down other competitors in the garage area. Johnson's focus never wavers from the bigger picture. He's always the calm amid the storm.

"Chad and I have done a good job over the years of not having complete meltdowns. We certainly have our moments. We get right to the edge and then realize, hey, this isn't good for the team, we're going to give up a good finish, we shouldn't do any more damage than we've already done, let's get our heads on straight and go from there," said Johnson, who's won three of the past four races at Dover International Speedway, where the NASCAR circuit competes this weekend.

"I feel that you don't see me [involved] in a lot of issues on track, and it's so easy to get caught up in that stuff when you're angry and mad. A lot of times you watch guys take care of themselves. They're frustrated, mad, start running into another one. That energy just breeds more of it. Before you know it, you turn around, cars wreck."

That worldview has been fine-tuned over the course of five successful championship runs, of course, but it was also in place long before Johnson arrived in NASCAR. It was his father Gary who reminded him of the meaning of sportsmanship after Johnson's on-course fracas with the other motorcycle rider, just as he had done a few years earlier when a an even younger Jimmie kicked his bike because he was too small to lift it back up after he had fallen off. For that latter offense, Gary Johnson locked his son's motorcycle in the trailer for the remainder of the weekend.

The lessons of those moments are evident in the Johnson of today. "I think a lot of it is your personality. It's the way you're genetically inclined. It's the way you were raised," said Johnson's teammate Mark Martin, another driver known for his focus and cool. "It's the way you grew up. It's the experiences you had. You know, it's all those things. It's how long you've been around, and how many times you've done something and looked back on it and wish you would have handled it differently, and maybe learned from that. It's all those things."

And it stands in stark contrast to the last two weeks, a heated span of harsh words and flame-ups that Johnson has been able to remain removed from. "When you act like a fool on the track, there has always been something when you come off the track that hits me and I feel guilty about acting that way," he said. Other drivers can have at it. Jimmie Johnson surely will be content having championships instead.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.