He grew up in a trailer park and he's bearing down on a record fourth consecutive Cup championship. So why do people think he's so vanilla?
This article appears in the November 9, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Then, finally, here comes Junior Johnson. How he does come on. He comes tooling across the infield in a big white dreamboat, a brand-new white Pontiac Catalina four-door hardtop sedan. He pulls up, and as he gets out he seems to get more and more huge. First his crew-cut head and then a big jaw and then a bigger neck and then a huge torso, like a wrestler's, all done up rather modish and California modern, with a red-and-white candy-striped sport shirt, white ducks and loafers.
"How you doing?" says Junior Johnson, shaking hands, and then he says, "Hot enough for ye'uns?"
There are no lasts in American folklore. New times bring new heroes. And the Newest American Hero wears a khaki suit in a dark room under a bright spotlight. The smell of banquet steak lingers in the air. Jimmie Johnson hates wearing suits, of course. When this luncheon ends, he will not wait 10 minutes to tear the suit off. There's nothing interesting or strange about that. Jimmie Johnson drives race cars. Race car drivers do not like wearing suits that can catch fire.
What is interesting is that, uncomfortable or not, Jimmie Johnson looks just right in the suit. His tie does not dangle at an awkward angle. His shirt looks freshly pressed.
His 30-waist pants have creases that could cut through beer cans. He does not sweat under the lights. Every hair stays in place. The Newest American Hero looks like a young entrepreneur. He might be about to make an offer on your company.
"I feel lucky every day," Jimmie Johnson says. His clear voice fills the room; he has used a microphone before. His voice carries no detectable accent other than American. Later he will tell you that only sharks scare him more than talking in front of people, but there is no way the man talking is scared. He looks not merely confident; he looks and sounds as though he was born in a suit and spoke his first words at an awards banquet.
"I'm just so fortunate," he says, and then he casually mentions his sponsor (Lowe's, of course) and his racing team, led by crew chief Chad Knaus ("they are incredible"), and his wife, Chani ("my best friend"). There is applause, a short standing ovation.
That's when Junior Seau takes the stage. This is his fund-raiser -- the Junior Seau Foundation Teammates Luncheon, in San Diego in early October -- and the six-time All-Pro linebacker attacks it with the same ferocity with which he used to attack running backs for the Chargers. Junior bullies people in the crowd to raise their bids on auction items. Junior pokes fun at his mother for not exercising more and at his father for having droned on too long during the invocation. Nobody is out of his reach. Junior Seau is a runaway train, and now he looks over Jimmie Johnson, measures him.
"I don't get you, man," Junior shouts. "You're up here, and you're all humble and meek and stuff. And then you get on the racetrack, and you're the Man! You're out there racing and slamming into cars. You've won three Super Bowls, man. You are the best ever. The best ever! And then you're up here, man, and you're like quiet and nice. What's that all about?"
Jimmie Johnson looks at Junior Seau awkwardly and shrugs his shoulders.
"That's what I'm talking about," Junior Seau shouts even louder. "WHAT'S WITH YOU, MAN?"
Seven years old. Jimmie Johnson -- for his Christian name is Jimmie, not James or even Jim -- knew that he could not take the double jump on his motorbike. He was too young, too green, too scared, and yet the voice of his hero echoed in his ears. Rick Johnson was the baddest man in El Cajon, Calif. Rick would win seven national motocross championships. Rick was 18 and the coolest thing going. Jimmie made himself believe that he and Rick were cousins, even though he'd been told they were not related. Jimmie needed to believe he had some of Rick in him.
"If you make that jump," Rick told him just before the under-10 race, "you will win! Do you hear me? You will win!"
Jimmie wanted to win. For himself. For Rick. But he was seven years old. He did not try the jump on his first lap or his second. The third time he approached the double jump, he saw Rick standing on the track -- on the track! -- and Rick was flicking his right wrist, a sign to pound the throttle. Jimmie sped up. The hill approached too fast. Jimmie would remember feeling something -- fear, certainly, but something else too, something harder to describe. Jimmie rushed up the hill, impossibly fast, and his bike took off, and it cleared the valley, and it landed softly on the other side. Impossible! Absurd! Seven years old! A perfect landing on the double jump! Never been done!
Then Jimmie rode off the track and fell off his bike.
"You hurt him!" Jimmie's father, Gary, yelled at Rick as he rushed toward his son. "You pushed him too fast."
"No!" Jimmie shouted as he dusted himself off. "I'm fine. I'm ready to go again."
"What happened?" Rick asked. "Why did you ride off the road?"
Jimmie shrugged. "Well," he said, "I had my eyes closed."
The Vanilla Thing. That's what Jimmie Johnson calls it. He has spent too many hours thinking about it. How could people see him as vanilla? He grew up in a trailer park. He jumped motorbikes and motorcycles, flipped off-road vehicles in the desert, drove trucks and hot rods and buggies. He tempted fate at every stage of his life. He worked his way up in the most American way, using his charm and talent and making friends. Now, at 34, he drives in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series -- "200 miles per hour with 40 other maniacs," as Rick Johnson describes it -- and nobody in the series drives better. Jimmie Johnson has won three Sprint Cup championships in a row, and with a 184-point lead after seven Chase races this year, he's on course to win his fourth straight, something no one has ever done.
Jimmie Johnson has won 40 Cup races over the last six years, more than have been won by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin, Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin. Combined. Also more than Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon combined. As Gordon says, "No one is even close." Or as Martin says, "He's Superman." And it grows more apparent, year after year, victory after victory, championship after championship, that no one who has climbed into a stock car -- not the good ol' boys or the moonshiners, not the intimidators or the kings, not the fireballs or the silver foxes or the men named Cale -- has ever driven it better than Jimmie Johnson.
Isn't this the American Dream come to life? Well, isn't it? Poor kid makes good. Thrill-seeker testing the limits. Jimmie Johnson can't help but see it that way. And still: the Vanilla Thing. He knows he bores people. He hears the boos that have followed him in his career. He catches the groans from the racing writers when he walks into the pressroom. He could not help but notice that before the season began, those racing writers -- a bit too enthusiastically, perhaps -- named Carl Edwards the favorite to win the championship this year. Carl Edwards? Johnson had won three in a row. How could he not be the favorite? But he knows: It's the Vanilla Thing.