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A legacy of lessons

As smooth a driver, as mentally tough a competitor and as celebrated a champion as Jimmie Johnson is, the 45-year-old Californian still vividly recalls what made the difference in his competitive life – the yin to his yang, a major reason he’s won a record-tying seven NASCAR Cup Series championships and 83 series races as he closes out his full-time career this weekend at Phoenix Raceway.

This most transformative moment happened before Johnson ever sat in a NASCAR stock car. He learned the art of proper mindset and singular focus before the world formally knew of his massive talent behind the wheel.

Johnson has told the story before, but in these final weeks of his final full-time season of NASCAR competition, he has reflected on certain impactful moments of his 23-year NASCAR career, and he insists a specific mental shift as a racer was the most impactful of all.

At only 19, Johnson remembers being stranded with his co-driver in his Trophy Truck while leading the 1995 Baja 1000 – the famed, but grueling 1,140-mile off-road race in the Mexican desert. Johnson had dozed off briefly in a remote portion of the course and crashed his truck into a sand dune.

During the 12-hour wait for a rescue, Johnson had a racing epiphany. The circumstances of the accident gave way to hours of self-reflection, and he made a mental discovery that would, decades later, ultimately change his destiny and impact modern-day NASCAR.

Jimmie Johnson Main Ally Butch

“I sat out there in the desert for a day, and I was so fearful my car owner was going to kick my butt, Chevrolet was going to drop me, I was going to be fired – that all this stuff was going to happen because, once again, I threw it all away,” said Johnson, who could recall similarly frustrating early exits from the lead on dirt bikes and trucks in those years spent climbing the racing ranks. “I lectured myself for so long out in the desert that once I emerged from that, I was a different racer. I had two more years in off-road trucks and I never flipped over again.

“Then I went into stock-car racing and just finally matured enough and was able to get to the finish line more than I had in the past.  … And I was like, ‘oh my gosh, this is what I need to be doing.’ Going fast is important but consistency also has its thing. I attribute laying in the Mexican desert in 1995 as a huge moment in time that shifted me as a racer.”

The fruits of his hard-earned competitive philosophy wouldn’t necessarily translate so clearly – or reward so robustly – for years. However, the change in mindset, strategy and resolve makes a lot of sense in recollection. Johnson’s NASCAR career wasn’t so much about being a hard-nosed risk-taker. His style is smooth, in sync with the capability of his car, coupled with the confidence he could make winning moves in the waning laps, if necessary.

He is probably more similar in style to fellow seven-time champ Richard Petty than the sport’s only other seven-time champion, Dale Earnhardt, who proudly sported the nickname, “The Intimidator.”

However, Johnson has won races and championships in his own distinct way – different from his fellow “seven-timers” – and he’s done so even when it may have felt like his success was a moving target. NASCAR changed the postseason format multiple times during Johnson’s career – even in the midst of his five-championship run from 2006-2010 – and yet he prevailed again and again.

Johnson is the only driver in NASCAR Cup Series history to win five consecutive championships, bettering the previous best mark set by NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough’s three straight titles from 1976-78.

For 16 consecutive years, Johnson and the No. 48 team won multiple races. His 83-win total – including two Daytona 500 victories, four Brickyard 400 wins and four Coca-Cola 600 wins – ties him with Yarborough for sixth place on the all-time wins list. Only NASCAR Hall of Famers Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip (84), Jeff Gordon (93), David Pearson (105) and Petty (200) have more.

Johnson will retire from full-time NASCAR Cup Series competition as the all-time wins leader at six tracks – Dover International Speedway (11 victories), Charlotte Motor Speedway (eight), Texas Motor Speedway (seven), Auto Club Speedway (six), Las Vegas Motor Speedway (four) and Kansas Speedway (three – a tie with Gordon and Kevin Harvick).

In 2009 Johnson became the first – and still remains the only – NASCAR driver to be named the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year. He is the first seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion born and raised outside North Carolina state lines, which were once considered the more traditional breeding ground for a stock-car star.

Johnson comes from a modest upbringing in the working-class neighborhood of El Cajon, California — about a 20-minute drive east from San Diego. And while he raced dirt bikes in the desert on the weekends, Johnson played water polo and was a member of the diving team while at Granite Hills High School.

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He was a popular student there and member of the Homecoming Court. His parents, Gary and Cathy, worked hard all week – he with a tire company and she as a school bus driver. Come the weekend, however, they loaded their three boys – including Johnson’s younger brothers, Jarit and Jesse – for a couple-hours travel east to ride and race dirt bikes in the hot California sand dunes.

It’s something the Johnsons loved to do even before Jimmie was born. In fact, one of Johnson’s best friends, motocross champion Rick Johnson, likes to joke he’s actually known Johnson longer than most anyone because he knew the seven-time NASCAR champ “in utero.” The two Johnson families became good friends after Jimmie and Rick’s parents met in the mid-1970s at … of course, a race track, and Rick recalls Cathy being pregnant with Jimmie.

And Rick Johnson has been a mentor, a sounding board and a competitive model for all of Jimmie Johnson’s career. He remains a huge supporter to this day, proud of Johnson’s work on the race track but also of his happy marriage to Chandra and the way he’s been such a loving father to their girls, Genevieve, 10, and Lydia, 7.

“Jimmie was the perfect storm, perfect place at the right time with tons of talent,” Rick Johnson said. “And the good guy deserves to win.”

•   •   •

Even with his success on two wheels and in the desert, Johnson can recall exactly when his professional fortune changed for the even-better. He met former Hendrick Motorsports executive Jimmy Johnson at a NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race at Florida’s Walt Disney World Speedway in the late 1990s. As you would imagine, the two bonded over their shared names. Jimmie gave Jimmy a business card and a year later, Jimmy called with an offer for Jimmie to drive a handful of Late Model stock-car races in North Carolina.

“I had never driven a stock car, never been on asphalt but I was like, ‘heck yeah, I’ll drive,’ ” Jimmie Johnson recalled with a laugh. “I told my parents that I had a chance at Hendrick Motorsports to drive a stock car and that I was moving to Charlotte and they were like, ‘OK, cool.’

“So off I went.”

The Late Model situation didn’t end up as Johnson had hoped, but it did put him where he needed to be, and Johnson found success in the Midwest-based ASA Series that led to a chance to drive in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series – then called the Busch Grand National Series. He ran two full years, winning the only race of his career in that series (at Chicago in 2001). And he passed out a lot of business cards.

Fortunately, another California superstar in Jeff Gordon had seen Johnson at a test and talked him up at Hendrick Motorsports. Meetings and lunches followed, and Johnson and up-and-coming crew chief Chad Knaus met up to gauge their potential for working chemistry. A match made in competitive heaven followed, and the two made their way together — forming the championship No. 48 Chevrolet team — in what should simultaneously culminate in a pair of NASCAR Hall of Fame inductions.

Man, we just locked arms from that day on, we literally locked arms and said, ‘we’re going to do this.’

“The real motivation was that we both knew this was our opportunity,” Knaus said, “and if we blew it, I’d be a washed-up crew chief before I even started and he’d probably be running in the Xfinity Series for the rest of his life. So we decided at that point, we were going to bond in this thing and make it successful because we didn’t know if we would ever get another opportunity. I could see that desire in his eyes and obviously, he could probably give you a similar opinion of me.

“Man, we just locked arms from that day on, we literally locked arms and said, ‘we’re going to do this.’ And it was awesome.”

Johnson’s impact on the sport is not only in the form of legendary driving achievement – but his contribution is also significant in his unmistakable connection with audiences. Corporate CEOs and blue-collar workers appreciated his laid-back, kind style and massive talent. College students and 10-year-olds rooted him on in front of the television and ultimately followed his career on social media. He was cool and fun. And he was a winner.

Johnson earned his historic bevy of titles during a markedly robust time in the sport – far-reaching, expanded schedules, deeply competitive race lineups, a major national media presence – and  … the all-important emergence of social media that allowed real-time interaction between fans and NASCAR stars in unprecedented and unforeseen ways.

Johnson has embraced a relationship with fans that has been particularly personal. His public relations representative at Hendrick Motorsports, Amy Walsh Stock, who is normally by his side during race weekends, has consistently been moved through the years seeing others discover just how genuine a person Johnson truly is.

Chris Graythen | Getty Images
Chris Graythen | Getty Images

After he ran the Boston Marathon in 2019, Johnson made a point to meet fellow runner, United States Marine Corps retiree Micah Herndon, who survived an IED explosion in Afghanistan in 2010. Herndon crawled to the finish line in that Boston Marathon, completely exhausted — hours after Johnson had already run by.

Johnson’s charities have funded schools in the family’s home of Charlotte but also Chandra’s native Oklahoma and Johnson’s native San Diego area. His good work has paid for homes constructed by Habitat for Humanity, helped rebuild his hometown neighborhood in California after wildfires and provided hurricane relief in the Carolinas.

“We’ve met a lot of people and every single one of them after they meet Jimmie looks at me and is like, ‘Gosh, he is so nice. Is he always like that?’ ” Stock recalled. “And I tell them, ‘yes, that’s who he is.’ And of course, he becomes friends with everybody, people tend to gravitate to him when they meet him and he stays friends with them.”

There is no underestimating, however, the positive impact Johnson has had over the years on kids – NASCAR’s next generation of passionate fandom. Even before he and wife Chandra became parents, Johnson always connected with the sport’s young fans.

One young fan in particular, Beau Smith, made such an impact on Johnson that the two are still friends five years after meeting. A then 10-year-old Smith, who was born with multiple physical challenges, was a guest in the pre-race driver’s meeting at Dover International Speedway in 2015. Dressed from head to toe in Johnson’s team colors and No. 48 logos, Smith patiently waited in his wheelchair until his racing hero walked into the driver meeting room.

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“When Jimmie walked by, Beau jumped out of his wheelchair to hug Jimmie,” Stock said. “He hugged him like three times and wouldn’t let go.

“It just touched everybody and FOX caught it on camera, and it touched Jimmie so much, he texted me after the race and said, ‘do you think we can find out who that little boy was that hugged me in the driver’s meeting?’ ”

The connection was made and they’ve been friends and mutual supporters ever since that first hug with Johnson. He even FaceTimed with Beau from his phone in Victory Lane while celebrating that historic seventh championship.

•   •   •

Robert Laberge | Getty Images
Robert Laberge | Getty Images

While these scenes have played out at tracks across the country for years, much has been made about the reticence of some NASCAR fans to fully recognize Johnson’s place in the sport — the wins, the championships, the charitable good, the easy-going willingness to engage with fans.

Johnson had to develop broad shoulders over the years, but he never carried a chip on them.

Even Johnson’s fiercest rivals recognize the competitive insanity of underestimating him.

“I think if anybody could have a chip on his shoulder it could be Jimmie Johnson because he really hasn’t been given his fair due, if you ask me,” said Gordon. “I can say that because not only did I race against him in those early races in Busch Grand National, I’ve raced against him in the Cup Series with the same equipment and gotten my butt kicked by him.

“So I can tell you, he’s the best I’ve ever raced against. And the reason is, he takes just the right amount of risk to get the right speed out of the car and make those moves that make the difference in winning and losing.”

He’s the best I’ve ever raced against.

Three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Tony Stewart is equally as adamant about both Johnson’s rightful place in the sport and the shock – he calls it “craziness” – that fans did not recognize and appreciate Johnson more during his unprecedented career.

As with Gordon, Stewart had to contend with Johnson for his three championships.

“I’ve said from day one, Jimmie doesn’t get the credit he deserves for what he’s done,” Stewart said. “There is no doubt in my mind, he is the most underrated champion we’ve ever seen. To me, it’s the biggest travesty we’ve ever seen. I mean, how do you not acknowledge what he’s done in different formats when the competition was closer and closer, yet the results always ended up the same.”

This week at Phoenix, Johnson will cross a NASCAR start/finish line for the last time as a full-time competitor but he leaves behind a legacy rightly reflective of both his personality and his championship pursuit.

“His philanthropy, his commitment, his desire, his contributions, just his presence,” Knaus said. “Jimmie is the guy that you want to grow up to be. If I want my son Kipling to grow up to be somebody, I want him to grow up to be Jimmie Johnson.

“Not because I want him to go win championships and be a race car driver, that’s not it. I want him to grow up like Jimmie Johnson because of the man Jimmie Johnson is.”

Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

It’s a recurring theme about Johnson.

“I joke around that when I grow up, I want to be that guy because I wish I could have been that guy – Jimmie Johnson – all my life,” said Stewart. “It isn’t about the wins or the championships, that’s not what I mean. It’s about how good a friend he is, how good a father he is, how good a husband he is, how good a mentor he is.

“It’s just an honor to be friends with him. Guys like Jimmie Johnson are the guys you want to surround yourself with in your life, whether it’s work, racing, anything. He’s the kind of person you want to be around.”

It’s all further proof that the nice guy can finish first. That a California-cool driver equipped with a masterful talent and overwhelming desire to succeed can change the sport and leave a lasting legacy.

As Johnson is so fond of saying with a smile, “all good.”

And he has been.

Jonathan Ferrey
Jonathan Ferrey