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Third Place

Johnson & Johnson
Matt Crossman, Sporting News

Fans see two Jimmie Johnsons. One is the clean-cut, all-American, married-to-a-fashion-model, race-winning corporate face of Lowe's. No right-thinking person has a legitimate beef with that Jimmie.
But a large portion of the racing public sees a pretty-boy, unibrowed, goody-two-shoes who is where he is only because of the insufferable Jeff Gordon. This section of the populace boos Johnson lustily during driver introductions and gets louder when the announcer intones that Johnson hails from a foreign country: California.

Johnson takes the boos in stride – and points out that his merchandise sells better than that of all but five or six of his Nextel Cup comrades. So there must be cheers in there somewhere.

But enemies are way more fun to talk about than supporters, especially when those enemies make YouTube videos. In one, a family who worships at the Church of Earnhardt is watching the end of the Talladega race, the fourth of 10 Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup events. There goes Jimmie Johnson, trying to pass race-leading Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the last lap. There goes Jimmie Johnson, after getting clipped by Brian Vickers, sliding with Dale Jr. into the infield, smoke pouring out of their tires as if they had run over a dragon.

The family goes berserk spewing language you wouldn't want your kid to hear.

"Even the toddler, I mean he was ripping you," Denny Hamlin, the 2006 rookie of the year, tells Johnson.

That kid couldn't have been happy last Sunday. Under a cloudless South Florida night sky, Johnson hoisted holding the Nextel Cup after completing one of the most successful seasons in series history. He won the two biggest races – the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 -- and the championship in the same year. He won the title with a striking mix of derring-do and calculated conservatism.
Just as fans see two Jimmie Johnsons, there were two Jimmie Johnsons on the racetrack. Racers know what they should do, but they don't always do it. They also know what they shouldn't do, and yet they do it. What a wretched lot they are. Go fast, go faster, go fastest, they are told. Win or bring home nothing but the steering wheel. No, wait, be patient; don't use up your stuff -- to finish first you must first finish.

Which is right?

Both.

Neither.

It depends.

It's the struggle with when to drive conservatively that trips up most drivers. Those who do it well win championships. Johnson won his first championship because he successfully balanced aggressiveness and caution throughout the Chase.

The two desires butted heads last Sunday after just 15 laps. Johnson drove into a piece of debris from Kurt Busch's car and punched a hole in the No. 48's front bumper. A long pit stop to fix the problem dropped Johnson to 39th place. With Matt Kenseth in fourth – a big enough points difference for Kenseth to overtake Johnson for the championship– the season hung in the balance. Johnson had to get closer to the front, but he had to do it carefully.

Johnson has plenty of experience with dramatic comebacks. He won the Daytona 500 despite the absence of crew chief Chad Knaus, who was kicked out of the track for using an illegal car in qualifying. In the Brickyard 400, Johnson cut a tire early and dropped to 39th before roaring back to win. At Dover, he spun in qualifying, started in the back, then spun early in the race before midrace changes turned his car into a rocket and he finished sixth.

By Lap 70 at Homestead, he had reached 12th – right where he needed to be to guarantee the championship. He didn't stay there long. He cracked the top 10 on Lap 79 but not before pulling close enough behind Kevin Harvick to make fans wonder whether Johnson knew what position he was in.
He spent most of the rest of the day in Kenseth's tire tracks, following him into the pits and mimicking his strategy. Johnson finished ninth and captured the Cup, 56 points ahead of Kenseth.

There were similarities to the 2004 season finale. In that event, eventual champion Kurt Busch overcame early race troubles. While Busch was back in the pack, Johnson, who wound up second in points, thought he might win the championship. On Sunday, even though he was back in the pack, Johnson never thought he would let the title slip away. The encouragement from the family and friends he had blown off for the previous week – don't worry, everything will work out – kept him calm. "Those things were all true inside the car. Outside of the car, I couldn't accept them," he says. "(It was the) opposite of the 2004 season. (In '04) I couldn't shake the nerves."

The go-fast/take-it-easy debate is the equivalent of considering whether to take an extra base in baseball or to throw into coverage in football. There are times to go for it and times not to, and if a driver screws up, it was the wrong time. Johnson has fought that internal battle his entire racing life. "Some guys never learn it," says Ray Evernham, owner of Evernham Motorsports, who says Johnson has showed uncommon patience since his 2002 rookie season. "Racing is as much mental as it is anything. You've got to be able to conquer that mental part of it. There's a ton of guys out here that have driving ability."

Johnson thought he had conquered his impulses when he raced off-road trucks. Then he thought he had conquered them in ASA cars. Then in Busch cars. Then in Nextel Cup cars. "Your vices, habits, problems – whatever you call that – we all have them, and they stay with you," Johnson says. "Half the problem is recognizing them. Now, I can recognize it and know when I need to address it."
Usually.

At Talladega, if Johnson had stayed behind Earnhardt and ridden out the race, he would have finished second easily, third at the worst. On the other hand, the attempted pass that doomed his day should have been easy because of the dynamics of drafting. Next thing you know, he finished 24th and caused that family to launch an f-bomb fest.

After Talladega, Johnson was eighth in the points race, 156 out of the lead. He all but declared his title hopes over and decided to see how many of the next six races he could win. He finished second the next week at Charlotte and won the week after that at Martinsville; he jumped to third in points, 41 out. A second at Atlanta vaulted him to second in points, 26 behind Kenseth. Johnson was charging – which made it time to take it easy.

Control of the Chase changed hands late in the race at Texas, the eighth of the Chase. On the final restart, a two-lap shootout, Johnson sat second behind Tony Stewart. Johnson's car, riding on four new tires to Stewart's two, clearly was faster. But Johnson let Stewart win rather than risk a wreck by trying to pass him. Settling for second pushed Johnson into the points lead.

It figures Johnson won the championship by being smart instead of driving as if his pants were on fire. It is just another reason for the message board Forty-Haters to write in all capital letters. Fans want their drivers to have backgrounds like a Bruce Springsteen song, full of heartache and tough luck and hard work. You can have your glory days, but you dang sure better rise up from something – poverty or bad equipment or a dead-end job working for a humorless dirtbag of a boss in a dank sweatshop.

Fans look at Johnson and say he's a boy band, manufactured greatness – that he hasn't earned it. On top of that, Johnson comes across as more vanilla than a fleet of ice cream trucks, and he is articulate – hardly characteristics of a greasy-knuckled moonshiner. But that YouTube kid might mellow out if he heard about Johnson scrambling for money to be able to drive to races. That kid needs to hear the tale of Johnson falling asleep at the wheel during an off-road race, rolling he doesn't know how many times because he woke up in the middle of the roll, then spending enough time abandoned in the Baja desert with a destroyed truck to see the sun come up -- twice.

Even Jimmie Johnson sees two Jimmie Johnsons. They sit on his shoulders during races. (Does that make three Jimmies?) One says, "Win this race." The other says, "Win this championship." At Charlotte, Martinsville and Atlanta, the two guys agreed. But starting at Texas, they diverged.
"I argue with those guys all the time," Johnson says.

During last Sunday's race, the little Jimmie pushing for the win was bound and gagged and locked in the trunk. But he had freedom to speak his mind at Phoenix, the next-to-last race. Johnson sat in second place behind Kevin Harvick late in the race. Just as he did at Texas and at Talladega, he had a chance to win. During the final caution, he had a decision: go for the win or settle for second. The reward for winning, in practical terms, was 10 more points. In nonpractical terms, winning kicks the snot out of second. But the risk was huge; he could have wrecked and fallen out of the points lead.

"Those two characters were on my shoulders. They negotiated under that final caution," Johnson says. "I knew if I could get inside Kevin on Turn 2 coming to the checkers, I negotiated with my two personalities that I would then really race for it. But if I didn't get position inside, it wasn't worth it."
Once the action started, Johnson peeked his nose under Harvick, but he didn't have enough. The most important pass of Johnson's season was one he didn't make.


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