With Cup title No. 7, Jimmie Johnson, once an unlikely NASCAR star, takes his place alongside the King and the Intimidator at the pinnacle of his sport
THREE DRIVERS HAVE WON seven NASCAR titles. The first two—Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt—seemed born to reach such lofty heights. These were men whose daddies (not dads, and sure as hell not fathers) became legends of the sport on the tracks around their North Carolina homes. Men who were turning wrenches long before they were old enough to legally drive. Men who learned many of life's lessons on and around rough-and-tumble ovals.
The third: Jimmie Johnson. A laid-back California kid who was, in the words of Ron Hornaday Jr., an early mentor, "too polite, too clean-cut to be a race car driver" when he arrived in North Carolina at age 21 to give the sport a shot. A driver who readily admits he was "never good at working on anything."
Yeah, he sticks out. Petty and Earnhardt were larger than life, known to even nonfans as the King and the Intimidator. Johnson, 41, has never even had a nickname. "A few buddies called me 'Jimbo,'" he says. And earlier this year, he was briefly hailed as Five Time at a team retreat after a self-professed "huge fan"—who wasn't so good with the math—coined that moniker for the then six-time champ. Petty was so renowned that he received mail that bore just his photo on the envelope. You try that with Johnson and there's a good chance that the autograph you get in return is coming from your local anchorman.
Outlier though he is, Johnson won the final race of NASCAR's playoff Chase at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 20 to get to seven, a truly magic number in his sport. It is racing's equivalent of Nicklaus's 18 majors, Phelps's 23 gold medals, Margaret Court's 24 Grand Slams. But since it's a mark he shares with two icons, the obvious question everyone wants to raise is, Which of the three is the best?
The answer: It's complicated. Different eras. Different levels of competition. The argument can be twisted any which way. Petty? You'd rack up wins too if you were the only guy running every race. (To which: Are we really going to penalize a guy for going to work on a regular basis?)
The case for Johnson centers on the fact that his titles have come during an era in which competition is legislated into the sport like never before. He's won under four points systems. He's won in a Monte Carlo. He's won in an Impala. He's won in the Car of Tomorrow. He's won with a rear wing. He's won with a spoiler. He's won with a splitter.
Could Dale have done that? Could Richard? Who knows? Could Batman beat up Superman? It's a great topic of conversation for a bar, which is fine by Johnson. "I've always felt the athlete should never stake their claim," he says. "That's an argument for fans, and what makes sports so awesome is the conversation that takes place. I'm just thrilled to be in that conversation."
But there's still a question to be answered: Just how did Jimmie Johnson insert himself into the conversation?
• Johnson moved to North Carolina in 1997, taking up residence on Hornaday's couch. The two California natives had met shortly before at an auto industry show in Vegas, and Hornaday told Johnson he was free to bunk at his place as he began learning to navigate the stock car world. He repaid Hornaday's hospitality by making shrimp tacos every Tuesday. ("My wife don't like any kind of fish stuff, so she always ate out," says Hornaday.)
Johnson was affable but genuine—smooth but not slick—so he had the glad-handing, sponsor-pleasing part of the driver's job down cold. But the other part, the actual driving of the race car, was a different story. Unlike Petty and Earnhardt (and just about everyone who entered the sport before the turn of the millennium), Johnson didn't have a background in stock cars. He'd started in motorcycles and moved on to off-road racing. "It was tough," Johnson says of the transition. "I knew how to make a vehicle go over the bumps. To make one turn? We never cared about that. The way you use the springs, the shocks.... I didn't know what a track bar was, I didn't know cross weight or wedge. I didn't know any of those terms."
Hornaday wasn't Johnson's only significant ally. Herb Fishel, the longtime director of racing for General Motors, thought so highly of Johnson that when Earnhardt decided to field a car in NASCAR's top series, he lobbied to get Johnson, by then competing in the second-tier Busch series, the seat. The competition? Dale Earnhardt Jr. "Herb is selling me," says Johnson, "and Dale is like, 'No Herb, you don't understand. I'm putting my son in the car.' 'But this is Jimmie Johnson.' 'No, no, I don't care, I'm going to put my son in the car.'"
Still, Earnhardt—who owned the truck Hornaday raced—knew of Johnson. The first time they met, Earnhardt gave Johnson a pocketknife and then demanded a penny as payment. Johnson didn't have one, but Earnhardt had a smirk that made it awfully hard to tell if he was totally busting your chops, kind of busting them or dead serious. To be safe, Johnson went and found a penny. The other time he encountered the Intimidator, Johnson was at Earnhardt's tiny shop (this was before the Garage Mahal) cutting the body off a truck with Hornaday. "Just hanging out and helping out," says Johnson. "I wasn't in DEI apparel." Earnhardt drove by, rolled down his window and asked Johnson if he was on the payroll.
"Get the hell off my property."
Says Johnson, "He did a great job of intimidating me then."
Still, Johnson was proving a natural in a stock car. He was driving a Chevy in NASCAR's second tier for Herzog Motorsports, but in 2000 it became clear that other teams would be able to help Johnson reach the Cup level quicker. As Johnson's reputation grew, offers started coming in, but they were all from Ford and Dodge teams.
Johnson was reluctant to leave Chevrolet, the brand that had been so good to him. So he sought out a driver who had changed manufacturers shortly after breaking into NASCAR: Jeff Gordon, who just happened to be his hero. "The only licensed merchandise product I've ever purchased in my life was a Jeff Gordon 24 car," says Johnson.
He buttonholed Gordon, who'd been in Fords until his 1992 deal with Hendrick Motorsports, before a race in Michigan. The two Californians went back to Gordon's hauler, where Johnson explained his conundrum.
"Yeah, that sucks," Gordon told him. "I don't have any great advice, but I can tell you your name came up in a conversation about starting a fourth team."
"A fourth team where?"
"At Hendrick. We're starting a fourth team and your name's the only name that came up."
Even now, 16 years later, Johnson seems awed by the exchange: "What? Are you f------ kidding me? I didn't even know he knew my name. That was mind-blowing to me."
A month later, just after turning 25, Johnson signed a deal to drive a Cup car owned by Gordon and Rick Hendrick full-time in 2002.
• Another knock on Petty was that he was always in the best equipment. (To which: So he should use crusty spark plugs or something?) At Hendrick, Johnson was walking into a similar situation. Without having any business doing so, he put his number 48 Chevy on the pole for the Daytona 500 to open his rookie season. He was the points leader with seven races to go before a bizarre incident at Talladega—in which Mark Martin's car rammed his before the green flag dropped—sent the team into a tailspin.
Johnson's transition to the Cup series was aided by Gordon, a mentor who became a close friend. After marrying young and becoming a Bible study aficionado, Gordon was recently divorced and looking to make up for lost time. Johnson, young and single, became his boss's running buddy. And oh, how they ran. "He went from speaking at his church to the polar opposite," says Johnson. "[From] a very small, tight-knit circle of friends, didn't socialize, wasn't out, certainly wouldn't see him at a bar to, just, I mean, going."
Gordon, a four-time Cup champion, was still one of the best drivers in the sport, and he provided Johnson with invaluable counsel on matters off- and on-track. "He would break down the turn and go deep with me on sensations and feelings in the car," Johnson says.
Casual fans love to ask, What if you took a run-of-the-mill driver and put him into the best car? Would that car still win? To which: It's complicated. There's more than one way to wheel a car around a track. Johnson benefited from Gordon's guidance, but applying specific pointers was difficult. "I studied his driver traces for years and years and years trying to mimic it, but we've got very different styles," says Johnson. "He would rather pull on the steering wheel and make the car turn. I don't like to move my hands much. I would rather control the car with my feet, with the brake pedal, with the throttle. The way you go about setting up the car, they end up quite different."
So yes, there was information to be gleaned. But someone had to make sense of it.
THE CREW CHIEF
• Like Johnson, Chad Knaus was young, hungry and something of an outsider. In September 2001, the then 30-year-old Rockford, Ill., native was the crew chief for Stacy Compton when the Hendrick camp asked him to come to lunch to get to know Johnson. What was supposed to be a quick meet at a hole in the wall turned into a two-hour discussion, with a round of golf scheduled for the following morning. "We started talking about the Midwest and motorcycles and how we grew up," says Knaus. "We just connected."
Fast from the beginning, they came tantalizingly close to the prize in 2004 and '05, each time heading into the final race in second place in the standings and each time falling short. The losing ate at them—especially Knaus. "He was just in a bad place, and really not happy with what was going on," Johnson says. "He never made it personal to me, he was just a pain in the ass to be around, and so tough. Our mojo was gone." (Knaus laughs and, loyal comrade that he is, accepts the blame. "I'll take it. That's the nature of being a crew chief.")
Rick Hendrick considered breaking them up after the 2005 season, but before doing so he gave them one last chance to reconcile. "They couldn't talk," says Hendrick. "I thought, If they're acting like kids, I'm going to treat them like kids." Hendrick called them to his office and broke out cookies on Mickey Mouse plates and milk. "If you're going to act like kids, maybe we'll have some milk and cookies and sit on the floor and have a timeout."
The takeaway was that Johnson should express himself better and Knaus should delegate more. Knaus, one of the great interpreters of NASCAR's rule book, had no choice but to delegate at Daytona the following February, when NASCAR sent him home for making an illegal alteration to the rear window of Johnson's car. Knaus was suspended for three races, leaving his crew—and driver—no choice but to take on more responsibility. "It made me grow up," says Johnson. "I became a little more of a leader of the team. It helped me step up into that role."
The first title came that fall, followed by four more in a row, the one in 2007 featuring a duel with Gordon. The racing was hard, and it eventually strained the two drivers' relationship. "We didn't have the casual conversations that led to deeper conversations," Johnson says. "But he's always been honest and been there to answer questions, as difficult as it must have been some times."
In time, Johnson got to a much better place with Gordon, just as he did with Knaus. In fact, with just about everyone, the third man to win seven championships is in a pretty good place.
• That particular place, in the first week of December, is Las Vegas. Johnson is a husband and father now, decked out in a natty herringbone suit for a day of media obligations, accompanied by wife Chandra. His two adorable moppets, six-year-old Genevieve and three-year-old Lydia, are off to the Children's Museum with the nanny. Johnson won number seven 11 days ago. SpeedWeeks, the opening of the 2017 season, is 79 days away.
"The grind is there," he concedes. "There are points of the year where I just want a weekend off. That's the part that's creeping in that wasn't there five years ago. I still have a lot of racing to do in the Cup series and a lot still to accomplish. But the grind is certainly wearing on me now."
Petty won his seventh championship at age 42 in 1979. After that the King was never much of a threat, focusing more of his attention on running Petty Enterprises before finally retiring in '92.
Earnhardt won his seventh in 1994, when he was 43, and like the King he started fading thereafter. But Earnhardt was rejuvenated by racing with his son (sorry, Herb). He finished second in the points in 2000 and looked ready to challenge for number eight when he was killed at Daytona in '01.
Johnson made his Cup debut eight months later. He's 41 now, and if the grind is wearing on him a bit mentally, it doesn't show physically. An avid triathlete—and not the old school NASCAR triathlon of beer drinkin', fightin' and hell-raisin'—he's in great shape. He hasn't missed a start in his career.
It also helps that driver and crew chief have settled into a rhythm and comfortably understand their roles. "Even to this day, Jimmie's still not very good at saying, 'We need to do this to the race car,'" says Knaus. "He says, 'This is what the car's doing, fix it.' He's not very good at practice. He's not very good at qualifying. But he's an amazing race driver. If you put him into a race, that's where he shines."
So no, eight doesn't seem like such a stretch.
There's one thing Johnson won't have to worry about as he chases history: the headaches that come with being the boss. Both Petty and Earnhardt transitioned to ownership later in their driving careers. Johnson's plans don't include anything that grand. "I've made it this far without having a job," he says. "I don't want to work. I just want to race. This is a kick-ass moment, but there's still a lot of road left."
"I still have a lot of racing to do in the Cup series," Johnson says, "AND A LOT STILL TO ACCOMPLISH."
"I'm just thrilled to be in that conversation," says Johnson of comparisons with the sport's most REVERED ICONS.