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All four tires exploded as the 4,000-pound truck cartwheeled down the cliff. The roll cage ripped off. When the smoking vehicle finally clanked to a stop, it looked as though it had been through a crushing machine at a junkyard. A dazed Johnson crawled out the window and plopped down on top of a boulder. He wasn't injured--"I'm still not sure why," he says--but no one knew where he was. For hours Johnson sat and thought about his life in racing. In the afternoon a family walked by with a few mules, looking at Johnson as if he had crash-landed from the moon. In the evening Johnson nibbled on a granola bar and continued to contemplate what he needed to do to make it as a racer. More than 20 hours passed before a rescue team reached him--a span of time that would be the defining moment of Johnson's career in motor sports.
"I was young, and all I thought about was going fast and being aggressive," recalls Johnson. "Well, I realized that night in the desert that I needed to be smarter. I still needed to push the car, but also I needed to bring it home clean. I needed to find that balance, and I began to find it that night in Mexico."
Two years after that crash, Johnson moved across the country to Charlotte--the hub of NASCAR--and into the living room of a house owned by Ron Hornaday, a veteran NASCAR driver whom Johnson had met at an auto show in Michigan in 1996. Johnson had no rent money to pay Hornaday, a fellow Californian, but he performed chores and frequently cooked his speciality: barbecued shrimp tacos. "Jimmie was a clean-cut kid who just wanted to race," says Hornaday. "He was the kind of kid you wanted to help."
Hornaday talked up Johnson to his friends in NASCAR, and Johnson started hanging out in Mooresville, N.C., at spots like Lancaster's Barbecue and a gas station deli at which, Hornaday told him, people in the business ate lunch. After a few months of handing out business cards and shaking every hand he could find, Johnson landed a ride in the short-track ASA series, a stepping stone to the Busch Series. His career has been on the fast track ever since: He won rookie-of-the-year honors in the ASA in '98, he landed a part-time Busch ride in '99, and in the fall of '00 he was hired by Jeff Gordon to drive the number 48 Lowe's Chevrolet that Gordon co-owns with Hendrick.
"I had no idea that Jimmie would develop into a champion this quickly," says Gordon. "A lot of fans think everything has been handed to him on a silver platter because he's so smooth, but they don't understand his background. It's made him hungry."
But as in the previous two seasons, Johnson, who led the 2006 standings for 22 of the first 26 weeks, sputtered at the start of the Chase. On Lap 88 of the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway on Sept. 17, he got caught in a chain-reaction accident and finished 39th, dropping him 139 points behind Chase leader Kevin Harvick. That night his dad called and calmly told Jimmie, "Don't worry, you're a Johnson. We do everything the hard way."
Three weeks later at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, Johnson was running second behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the last lap of the UAW-Ford 500 when the rear of Johnson's Chevy was nudged by the car driven by teammate Brian Vickers. Johnson spun and finished 24th. More significant, he dropped to eighth place in the Chase, 156 points out of the lead, with six races to go. Even Johnson, an optimist, sensed that his season was slipping away. Two days later Hendrick had a sit-down with Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, at the team's headquarters in Charlotte. "Just have fun and don't worry about the points," Hendrick said. "The pressure is off."
That simple pep talk kick-started one of the strongest finishes to a season in NASCAR history. At Charlotte the next week Johnson came in second. Seven days later he won at Martinsville. Then came three more second-place runs. In five weeks Johnson had risen from eighth to first in the standings. Before Homestead, Johnson was asked what worried him the most. His one-word response was telling: "Myself."
As the laps wound down on Sunday, Johnson's parents fidgeted nervously in his pit stall. Cathy turned her back to the track, unable to watch. Johnson's car had hit a piece of debris on Lap 15, and he had fallen to 40th place while his crew put a piece of duct tape over the hole in his grill. But Johnson didn't panic. He patiently weaved his way through the field, taking few chances. When he crossed the line to win the title at last, the emotions in his pit overflowed.
Gary hugged Cathy. Johnson's friend Mike Hampton, the Atlanta Braves pitcher, high-fived everyone in sight. Chandra jumped over the pit wall and ran through the infield grass in her black high heels, trying to find her husband. Her eyes were wet, but what would Jimmie do? Would his corporate face finally melt now that he had reached the summit of American motor sports?