Whispers and wails of change in NASCAR are everywhere in the air. There’s no shelter from the winds of change to those within the sport, and truth be told, they have blown ceaselessly for a long time now. But what if the sport isn’t the only thing that has changed? Our world has changed, our culture has shifted. But what if we’ve changed, too? And what if racing has changed us?
We—a collective “we” made of race fans, media, and those within the sport—speak a lot of the changes in NASCAR in recent years. But such talk is largely dissatisfying. It’s a relief, maybe, to be heard by others who see it, too, and to hear them saying the same things you were hoping you hadn’t just imagined. This started as an exploration of exactly what has changed, but along the way, it became apparent that part of the answer was me. Part of the answer was all of us. In Part II, you’ll read a closer look at a champion driver and his own racing evolution from the bottom of the barrel to the top of the world.
Drivers like him were a dime a dozen, really. Driving for decent, mid-level teams in what was then the Busch Series, not really making a lot of waves. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the series still had a number of thriving independent teams—in 2000, Jeff Green won the series title by over 600 points over his own teammate, driving for a non-Cup affiliated team. That’s unheard of now. A handful of top 10s was enough to secure a top-10 points finish. Some Cup drivers would drop down and many ran a lot of races, but it would be another year or two before the Cup drivers in Cup-owned cars would take over the series.
Series regulars made names for themselves – Green and his brothers David and Mark, Jason Keller, Elton Sawyer, Randy LaJoie, youngsters like Kevin Harvick and Casey Atwood. But making a name in that series was no guarantee of anything else. Harvick had already been tapped by Richard Childress Racing in 2000 and was driving the season in an RCR car, taking rookie honors. The others inside the top 10 in points were a mixed group of veterans whose best days came in that series and a few youngsters. Atwood had the reputation of being the next big thing.
So, if you barely gave a second glance at the rookie who finished 10thin points that year on the strength of just six top-10 finishes and two laps led after failing to qualify for the season opener in Daytona and followed that up with an eighth-place run the following year, well, you’re excused, because frankly neither did anyone else.
Except for a perceptive youngster whose father owned a race team.
And seemingly overnight, Jimmie Johnson went from a dime a dozen to one in a million.
It wasn’t really that simple; it rarely is. Johnson didn’t grow up with a last name steeped in racing lore or a family business to back him. He grew up in a decidedly blue-collar family. Weekends were spent roaming the desert near his family’s southern California home.
Maybe Johnson’s future was destined from the start. There’s a picture of him, maybe three years old or so, riding his tricycle with a pair of oversized goggles and socks for racing gloves. Johnson says he wanted to be a firefighter, but somewhere along the line, he fashioned himself into a racer instead.
His family’s budget began and ended with racing dirt bikes in the desert. Johnson was good, but he was ready to move on. To do that, he learned to approach teams and sponsors, and eventually made tentative inroads into off-road racing, which was prominent in California. Racing in both stadiums and the desert, Johnson forged some lasting relationships.
He made friendships that would endure throughout his career with drivers like Casey Mears and Brendan Gaughan. And he caught the eye of Chevrolet at 16.
I talked with Johnson earlier this year about what that relationship meant.
“I got very fortunate with the timing,” Johnson says. “Chevrolet, like many the manufacturers, were looking for young drivers and my fortunate situation was they were also looking for team owners. Herb Fischel ran the GM Chevrolet race shop at the time (and) was not only looking for drivers but teams and he saw both of us and put us together. So that’s how I started racing with the Herzogs in the off-road series because Herb had a vision of us all moving up to Cup someday and trying to ascend it together.”
Which led to ASA and then the Busch Series deal. With Herzog Motorsports, Johnson was comfortable, at ease. The team improved in their second year in 2001, winning once. The plan had always been to move up to the Cup Series together, keeping Johnson with the team he’s grown up with. That was always the plan.
Johnson ran into then three-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon in the garage and asked him for some advice about moving up. What he got was Gordon asking him to wait a few weeks before making any decisions. Gordon inked a lifetime contract with Hendrick Motorsports in 2001, a contract that included majority ownership in a fourth Hendrick race team. Ricky Hendrick, the son of team owner Rick Hendrick, pitched Johnson. Gordon agreed. Somehow, they sold sponsors on the young driver despite his relative inexperience.
Johnson had had every intention of honoring his deal, but his team owners encouraged him to take the offer.
“Once I got to the Xfinity Series and had my offer from Hendrick, everybody’s like, you should probably take that,” Johnson says now. “But the timing of that and really the vision that Chevrolet had to bring a driver along and a team is what gave me my break. I wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
Johnson made a couple of Cup starts in late 2001, officially becoming a Cup rookie in 2002. He started the year by winning the pole for the Daytona 500, but harbored plenty of doubts, wondering how long he had to win before the team would look for someone else.
He didn’t have to wait long, winning the first of three races at Fontana.
“In the beginning, being able to win my first Cup race and then win regularly just brought a lot of confidence and comfort and just quieted my own mind down,” said Johnson. “Every driver deals with a lot of doubts and a lot of struggles week in and week out. And I can certainly add my own.”
You’re probably familiar with a lot of what happens next. Johnson’s 83 Cup wins and seven titles cement him as one of the best ever to climb behind the wheel of a NASCAR Cup car.
Even now, Johnson credits lessons he learned in those early years for his success.
“I learned a ton (in ASA), met Ron Malec – my longtime car chief – there,” Johnson says. “I made a lot of good relationships through ASA and still have many of them through today. It taught me a lot of perseverance. We worked long and hard to make that work for us. Lots of sleepless nights and (time) on the road.”
Is it possible to talk about a racer’s evolution without acknowledging what racing costs? It’s been a long time since the sport has been forced to think about that. For Johnson, that cost has been high. He was a Busch Series rookie when the series went to Loudon, New Hampshire and Adam Petty lost his life in a sudden, stunning accident in turn three. That was one among a rash of fatalities in racing in 2000-2001 that affected the racing community.
For Johnson, the ultimate moment in his young career always holds a tint of tragedy. The night he qualified for his first Cup Series race was also the night that his close friend Blaise Alexander climbed into his ARCA racecar for the last time. Alexander died instantly when his car hit the wall in the final laps of the race.
What should have been the best weekend of Johnson’s young life suddenly wasn’t. He wrote his friend’s name on the front bumper of his Cup car. It’s been there ever since. 83 times, Alexander has crossed the finish line before anyone else. Johnson says it brings him comfort.
After several members of Hendrick Motorsports, including Ricky Hendrick, were killed in a plane crash en route to Martinsville Speedway (Johnson won that day, only to find out afterward that 10 people had never made it to the track), Johnson added the tail number of the plane to the decal he carries.
“It means a lot to me that Blaise has a presence on the front of my car,” Johnson says. “He was one of my best friends and I don’t ever want him to be forgotten. This way, every time I cross the finish line, he’ll always finish ahead of me. The plane crash decal is so we don’t ever forget. Ricky Hendrick and everyone on that plane ride with me each week.”
But if you want to point to something that defines Johnson as a racer, it might be a story from Johnson’s earliest days in the seat.
Johnson, champion racecar driver, has an ironic quirk: he gets carsick. He’s okay as long as he’s driving, but when he’s a passenger, things go south. But for the then 15-year-old, the chance to ride along for a large chunk of the Baja 500 was too much of an opportunity to resist. He climbed into the passenger seat, and …well, it wasn’t pretty.
“My first time to ride in a desert car I rode with Frank Arciero,” Johnson recalls. “So, Frank and Bob Gordon would share a buggy, a class one buggy. And I got in the halfway point and rode the second half of the Baja 500 and puked my guts out the whole way,.
Johnson is completely cheerful in relating the experience.
“I knew that I got carsick,” he continued. “I never thought that I would get carsick in a race or in a race car (but) about 20 miles in, it was ugly and I was in so much pain, but I wouldn’t get out. Nope. Wouldn’t get out. One of the pit stops we came through was the one my dad ran and operated and he could see the trouble I was in and tried getting me out of the car and I was like, no, no chance. Stay away. Just hand me another bag of rags … Yep.”
It’s sort of funny now (possibly funnier because it wasn’t his own helmet Johnson was sick in, but Robby Gordon’s), but think about it: Johnson could have gotten out of that buggy and nobody would have blamed him. But it was the chance to be in a race, and he wasn’t giving up that chance to be a part of it. Johnson is nothing if not tenacious behind the wheel of a racecar. If he sniffs the lead it’s like blood in the water, and if he has it, good luck wresting it away.
Johnson says he learned that commitment from his off-road days, along with the car control that has served him throughout his career.
Perseverance, overcoming adversity, commitment. Lessons learned by a young racer that carried him to the top of his sport. Johnson won early and often, often to be met with scorn from fans, and handled that with grace and class. But the wins don’t come forever, and it’s been over two years now for Johnson. He says that self-doubt he felt as a rookie sometimes creeps back in. He knows he can still win, and he tries to channel that young driver’s confidence now.
“As things kind of slow down over the years, yeah, the doubt and lack of confidence kind of creeps back in,” Johnson says. “I’m human and everyone is and that’s inevitable. But (on) this journey, I’ve learned so much through it and (now) it reminds me of my early days in stock car racing, back to the Herzogs when I was racing for them and just how people notice the work effort, people noticed at the time I put into it and eventually their results came. So, I feel like I’m back in familiar territory right now and we’re rebuilding our team and the results will come…racing has taught me patience.”
So, for the driver, maybe everything has come full circle, evolution nearly complete. His legacy is secure, a winner and a champion, maybe more than he ever thought he’d accomplish except in daydreams. His hope for how he’ll be remembered is simple, and speaks of more, now, than the trophies.
“I want people to think I was a good racecar driver, a good champion, a great husband and an even better Dad.”