Thursday, November 12, 2009

That glint in his eye: Jimmie Johnson, a prime example of the new generation of drivers, is focused on getting to the top of the NASCAR heap.(2004 NAS USA, LLC

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We need sound effects here. We need that deep, ominous "hmmmm-hmmm, hmmmm-hmmm" from Jaws. We need the pockety-pock noise of air bubbles escaping scuba tanks. We need the sound that is the awesome silence of the deep.

We need the sound effects to enhance this scene: Sunlight filters through Evian-clear water off the Bahamas. Two driver/divers appear. There is Jeff Gordon, an eager veteran at this. And Jimmie Johnson, so much a scuba novice he should have a strip of yellow tape on his tank, the way NASCAR indicates its rookies with a stripe on their bumpers.

Then, here come the sharks.

Gordon's eyes go giddy with excitement. This is a diver's dream, swimming with sharks.

Then, there is Johnson.

Did we mention this part yet?

"Sharks have always been one of my phobias," Johnson says. "I grew up in southern California, and I grew up surfing. I was always afraid of being attacked by a shark."

Now, instead of skimming along the surface on a board, here he was, floating along smack-dab in the sharks' kitchen. A half-dozen of them, 6 and 7 feet long.

Hmmmm-hmmm. Hmmmm-hmmm.

Great. Two of the best drivers in all of NASCAR, and they're in danger of being shark bait.

"(Gordon) was excited," Johnson says. "I wasn't as happy. But it ended up being a neat experience. I've got a different appreciation for being down there with sharks. I was surprised how calm they were and how uninterested they were in me."

There is one obvious question for Johnson, having been lured into the deep by Gordon:

Didn't your parents ever warn you about peer pressure?

Johnson simply laughs.

Gordon, now a crusty 32, has been a boss, mentor, friend, coach and even a bit of an Eddie Haskell, leading him into territories of mischief and mayhem, to Johnson, 28.

"At the beginning (of Johnson's career), those two were like peanut butter and jelly," says Chad Knaus, the crew chief for Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet.

It would be only slight metaphor abuse to suggest Gordon has spent much of the previous two seasons leading Johnson into and through NASCAR's perilous shark-infested waters.

It is a well-documented friendship. Gordon took a venture into ownership, teaming with Rick Hendrick to field Johnson's ride. In Johnson, Hendrick found not only a preternatural talent, but also a buddy for Gordon. And in Gordon, Johnson found a perfect example for his career.

"He was exactly what Jimmie needed at the beginning," Knaus says. "He was a friend in this sport, a guy who could guide him and coach him, which is exactly what Jeff did. Jeff was able to show Jimmie how to deal with the media, how to deal with the pressures, how to deal with the pressure of running competitively and fulfilling the obligations with the sponsor and fitting in the team and family life. Jeff really showed him a lot the first year, year and a half."

Johnson is hanging around the race shop on this January morning, autographing die-cast cars--a wonderful bit of multitasking, to answer questions and sign. He agrees with Knaus' assessment.

"Honestly, I learn something all the time from him," Johnson says. "Jeff doesn't sit down and explain things. We don't sit and have meetings where I'm the student. He really teaches by example.

"I've learned a lot on and off the racetrack. He's got to be one of the best people in the world dealing with pressure and letting things roll off his back. He is really an amazing person."

Says Knaus: "Jimmie has kind of come into his own. He doesn't rely on Jeff nearly as much. But Jeff is still there for him all the time. It's not near the level it used to be, but they're still tremendous friends."

Fact is, the student graded slightly better than the teacher in 2003. Gordon was fourth in points, won three races, had 20 top 10s and finished with $6.6 million; Johnson also had three wins and 20 top 10s, but he pocketed $7.7 million and finished second in points behind Matt Kenseth. This from a driver who won only one Busch series race in three years.

"I've got to be the first to tell you it was a total shock to me when Rick announced (he was hiring Johnson)," says Larry McReynolds, a FOX analyst. "I thought, 'What is he thinking? What is he seeing that I hadn't seen and a lot of people hadn't seen?' Obviously, Rick has a knack for picking talent."

"All it took was to get somebody believing in him and giving him a chance," Sterling Marlin says. "Jimmie's a great driver and he walked into a topnotch organization, and he's made it all go."

Since the fourth race of Johnson's first full season in 2002, when he finished third at Atlanta, he has never left the top 10 in NASCAR points. And had the new Nextel Cup Chase for the Championship format been in place last season, he would have won the title. Despite all that success, there is very much a gee-whiz attitude in Johnson.

"It's something I'll always hang on to," he says of his early success. "I grew up in a very simple home, a very simple background, and to be able to do what I'm able to do today, I'm very honored. I don't think I'll ever lose that perspective, and I don't want to."

Jimmie Johnson's route to NASCAR stardom came on a bumpy course. Head-bobbing, fillings-rattling, butt-bruising, stomach-wrenching bumps.

He isn't the scion of some noble racing family, weaned on asphalt tracks that seemed paved of velvet. Gary and Cathy Johnson and their family lived in modest surroundings in El Cajon.

"My parents haven't been able to afford to put me in a (race) car," Johnson says. "My parents never had anything nice for themselves because they wanted to make sure their kids had opportunities and had fun. Definitely, they sacrificed a lot financially."

Johnson was an off-road racer, a prodigy in big, old vehicles that leapt over moguls and skidded into dirt-scattering turns. The venues ranged from massive stadiums, into which promoters spilled tons and tons of dirt atop pristine outfields, to stark desert courses where you'd need to worry about the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote lurching suddenly into your path.

It is suggested that such racing often requires more driving skill than NASCAR. Johnson is diplomatic. Yes, he has learned from Gordon.

"It's just a totally different discipline," Johnson says. "You've got to worry more about spending the whole time sideways and negotiating bumps. A stock car is all about the cornering. In off-road, you have cornering and bumps. It's not easier or harder. It's just totally different."

The off-roading helped enhance a skill that some fellow competitors note.

"I just think he's got a great feel for the car," says Elliott Sadler. "Sometimes he comes by and he's got that thing so hung out, but he's got it under control. He's got great car control."

Control is a good word for Johnson. His humble past has left him well grounded in the present.

Gary Johnson finally has a nice vehicle to drive he pilots Jimmie's motor coach from speedway to speedway. The family, including two younger brothers, has moved from California to North Carolina.

That also says a lot about Johnson. No posse of old pals traipsing along. No glittering array of stars and singers sharing the spotlight. Just his dad, wheeling around the luxury coach.

Johnson isn't one of the sport's glitter guys. Hey, good racers might draw fans, but racers with distinctive personalities draw TV ratings. And that seems more important these days. "I don't know that Jimmie will be as big of a star as, say, Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. or Jeff," Knaus says. "Everybody's looking for the new hot story, and Jimmie's real laid-back. There's not a lot to talk about. The guy's a tremendous racecar driver. He drives for a good race team. He's got a great owner. But there's not a whole lot to say. He's not a big flash guy like Dale Jr. or Kevin Harvick, who make a big bang. It's not his style."

Funny thing. Public attention for Johnson is not unlike the sharks'. Remember what he said? "I was surprised how calm they were and how uninterested they were in me."

Ironic, because Jimmie Johnson was points runner-up last season. He has been the most consistent performer over the past two years. We're telling you right now he will be the 2004 Nextel Cup champion.

Maybe he swims silently. But hear the ominous warning for other drivers.


RELATED ARTICLE: Water under the bridge.


If the curious mathematics and format of the new Nextel Cup championship were applied to the 2003 results, the NASCAR champion would have been Jimmie Johnson, not Matt Kenseth.

Johnson finished as runner-up, 90 points behind Kenseth. But Johnson finished in the top eight in nine of the final 10 races and would have won the title under the Nextel format.

If. Don't bother Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, with that word. "That was last year," Knaus says. "We can't turn back time. It's not a big deal. We didn't win it. We need to try to win it this year.

"We had a tremendous season last year. I'm ecstatic about it. There's nothing I would rather have done than win it. But we didn't."

If Johnson had his druthers, despite the what-might-have-been, the points system wouldn't have changed for 2004.

"Though I would have won the championship, I can't say it's the right answer," Johnson says. "We'll have to wait and see how it plays out. I'm not dead set on how the rules have come out with the points change."--M.M.

Mark McCarter is a sports columnist for the Huntsville (Ala.) Times.

Source Citation
McCarter, Mark. "That glint in his eye: Jimmie Johnson, a prime example of the new generation of drivers, is focused on getting to the top of the NASCAR heap." The Sporting News 16 Feb. 2004: 34+. General OneFile. Web. 12 Nov. 2009. .

Gale Document Number:A113299087

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