Matt Crossman, Sporting News Magazine
Flip the script, already
Five-time Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson isn’t boring, and it’s about time someone turned the page on the notion that he is. So go ahead, turn it.
Here we go again. Time to “celebrate” another Jimmie Johnson Sprint Cup championship. That’s five in a row. Five straight years of a sponsor-ified lame-o, five straight years of re-electing the mayor of Boresville, five straight years of a vanilla (1) driver saying vanilla things (1a).
Please, NASCAR, give us someone who won’t put us to sleep, give us someone fun, give us a risk-taking, hard-charging lead-footed fire-breathing beast (2) like we had in the good old days (3). Give us someone who worked his way up from Nowheresville (4), not some pretty boy who was simply handed one of the best cars in the sport (5).
Please, NASCAR, figure out a way (6) to give us what we want. Give us someone with personality, with a sense of humor (7) who isn’t so prim and proper, someone who lets his hair down, someone who if you ran into him at the bar he wouldn’t be drinking warm milk and eating diet crackers (8).
Please, NASCAR, if nothing else, just give us someone who will stop beating the field so badly (9).
1 – This word, vanilla, drives his friends batty. They roll their eyes when they hear it. The guy drives a car 180 miles per hour for a living, is married to a model and wins all the time – and he’s boring how? Still, they acknowledge there is a kernel of truth in it … if all you ever saw of Johnson, 35, was at the track.
At the track, he is impossibly single-minded, and he isn’t thinking about entertaining fans – he’s thinking about winning (and thanking Lowe’s). But that’s only part of his story.
“Jimmie’s very mature,” says Brian Vickers, a fellow driver and close friend of Johnson’s. “It’s funny, I’ve never thought that maturity means you have to be boring. Maturity means you know when to play and when not to. Maturity to me is knowing what’s the appropriate time more so than what’s appropriate. Jimmie surfing on top of a golf cart going to driver intros is probably not appropriate. Surfing on top of his golf cart during a drunken charity event is probably appropriate (8 and 8a).”
1a – Dude drops constant s-bombs, d-bombs and a-bombs.
2 – The idea that Johnson could win five titles and 53 races in nine seasons without having these characteristics is laughable, but that’s what 48-haters say. If the evidence on the track isn’t enough to blow this idea up, consider ... “I’ve seen him down at the ocean jump off the top of a boat that was three stories high,” says Rick Hendrick, the owner of Hendrick Motorsports, which fields Johnson’s cars.
“Surfing behind a fishing boat in the middle of shark-infested waters. There’s lots of stories. He’s kind of a daredevil.”
Johnson, Vickers and fellow driver/close friend Casey Mears have an inside joke: “Why is it that every time we get together we do something that could kill us?”
Says Johnson: “Things that can hurt us entertain us.”
A few years ago, the three started playing with a kite tube, which is a cross between a kite and an innertube. The, um, victim, rides the kite tube behind a boat. The instructions say never attach the rope high on the boat and never exceed a certain speed, so they did both immediately. The last time they used it, Vickers somehow soared directly above the boat. Mears, who was driving, lost sight of him and released the throttle. That put slack in the line, which sent Vickers plummeting so hard into the water that everybody on the boat thought he was dead. Johnson says Vickers looked like a lawn dart as he speared into the lake.
Vickers’ back hurt so bad he could not drive home. A shaken Mears slashed the kite tube with a knife, destroying it, a rare show of wisdom when those three get together.
3 – The good old days have stories like this, as told by Brendan Gaughan, who has raced at all three of NASCAR’s top levels and met Johnson when Gaughan’s truck literally landed on top of Johnson’s during an off-road race: “In the Mickey Thompson stadium racing series one day, we were racing SuperLites, so, shoot, we had to be 17 years old. I think it was Seattle in the Kingdome. He tried to clear a triple (jump) in our little cars that couldn’t clear it. He tried, stuffed it in, flipped, landed on his wheels, kept going, won the race, gave the interviews, did the trophies.
“He woke up about two hours later, we were hanging out,” Gaughan says. “He goes, ‘Where’d the trophy come from?’ He had no clue he had won, he smacked his head so hard. He’s like, ‘Wow, I won.’”
Johnson’s head wasn’t the only thing damaged that night.
“We had a guy that we raced with that his goal was to see how high of a hotel bill he could have,” Johnson says. “He would literally take the drawers for your clothes and fill them full of ice and stuff beers (8, 8a and 8b) in them and invite the entire field back to his suite.”
That’s where Johnson was when he wondered how he had come to have a trophy in his lap.
4 – Johnson says he usually doesn’t listen to his critics. But it bugs him that people don’t know his humble beginnings. The family lived for a while in a trailer park, his dad operated heavy machinery, and his mom drove a school bus. The family camped out as it traveled to Johnson’s dirt bike races. That’s not a childhood. That’s a Bruce Springsteen song.
5 – He was indeed given the No. 48 without a resume to prove he was worthy of it. But he has since won five championships with it. Having a fast car and winning with it is the difference between having a stamp and being the mailman.
6 – This is a reference to NASCAR’s as-yet-unannounced plan to tweak the Chase, which some observers interpret as an attempt to end Johnson’s reign . That might be an exaggeration, but NASCAR probably wouldn’t mind a new champion.
7 – From Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief: “We were out riding dirt bikes one day. He was trying to help me learn how to ride a dirt bike because I’m just not very good on a dirt bike. I had crashed. Instead of him stopping to see if I was OK, what he opted to do was to go around the track as fast as he could to see how many times he could jump me before I actually got up.”
8 – Based on a totally unscientific survey, the good stories about Johnson involve beer, the great ones involve tequila, and the unbelievable ones involve both. “The best way to describe Jimmie would be, Work hard, play hard,” says Marshall Carlson, president of Hendrick Motorsports. “Anything he does, he does it to the max.”
When Johnson turned 30, his wife and buddies threw him a surprise party. “Some of his teammates had taken him down to a (Carolina) Panthers game,” Carlson says. “Jimmie showed back up at his house to 100 of his closest friends. He had a football helmet on. Not long after that, the pool was overflowing with laundry detergent and soap bubbles, and he was in the middle of it (No. 8b).”
That sounds tame compared with the party Johnson threw on St. Barts a few days before he got married. “The girls had the girls day,” Vickers says. “They were dressed up nice, went and had a spa day, had manicures and pedicures, went and had a nice lunch on the beach. Jimmie decided the boys’ thing wasn’t going to be anything like that. He decided we were just going to get rowdy.” Johnson dreamed up a plan he called Speedo Run. Which meant 18 or 20 guys wearing nothing but Speedos, wigs and fake mustaches and going bar- hopping on mopeds.
8a – This is a reference to the time Johnson was lying on top of a golf cart, fell off and broke his wrist and then was so embarrassed he fed the media a cock-and-bull story about falling out of the cart. This is not the only time he has used a golf cart in a manner for which it was not intended. “Here we are, in a golf cart, and he’s basically running the 24 hours of Le Mans through the woods,” says Jason Sehorn, a friend of Johnson’s and a former Giants and Rams defensive back. “From there, it gets riskier and riskier, so I’ll keep some of it out of it.”
C’mon. Don’t clam up now. Where’d he go? “Like, in the forest, literally bouncing the golf cart off of trees. There was no clear-cut path – the path was as you go.” Why did he do that? Johnson suggests he was looking for a lost ball … and messing with Sehorn. Sehorn’s answer: “Because he could, because it seemed like a fun thing to do. He’s got this impulsive side. You can’t be impulsive in the car. You’re just driving down the golf course, and all of a sudden he looks to the left, and instead of the cart path, he’s like, ‘Man, that would be kind of fun to see how we can navigate through there.’ It’s like, ‘But there’s no path.’ ‘Well, we’ll make a path.’ One of his things is, ‘Details! Don’t bother me with details.’”
8b – Mears poured in the soap. “We’re growing up a little bit,” he says. “We’ve got families now. (Mears’ daughter is 2. Johnson’s is almost 5 months.) The crazy stuff has kind of settled down. We still enjoy time out on the wakeboard or go play on the sand dunes or go snowboarding, things like that. Obviously there are more important things going on, so we don’t do it as often.”
9 – Can’t help you there.