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He drove down the
frontstretch at Homestead-Miami Speedway, cruising closer and closer to the
finish line of the final race of NASCAR's 2006 season. The white strip was just
50 tantalizing yards in front of Jimmie Johnson, and a group of fans at the
flag stand cheered for him to floor it. But Johnson's vehicle abruptly stopped
30 feet short of the line, and he stepped out into the cool night air. The
grandstands were nearly empty, and the 31-year-old Johnson, who two hours
earlier had clinched the Nextel Cup championship, let his eyes wander up to the
dark South Florida sky as he measured the moment.
Over the past five seasons no driver in NASCAR has been more consistently excellent than Johnson. He has won more races (23), had more top five finishes (66) and spent more weeks in the top 10 in the standings (175) than anyone else in the series. But Johnson has also been the Peyton Manning of NASCAR--a freakish talent with scary hand-eye coordination who couldn't win the big prize. In 2003 Johnson finished second in the standings behind Kenseth. In 2004 he came up eight points short of champion Kurt Busch. And last year he had a chance to overtake Tony Stewart in the season finale at Homestead, but he crashed and wound up fifth in the standings.
"It took some disappointment for Jimmie to get here," says his car owner Rick Hendrick, whose drivers have now won six points titles. "But he's matured, and now, as a racer, he's the whole package."
This year Johnson won the Daytona 500, the All-Star Challenge and the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard-- NASCAR's most prestigious events. No driver had ever swept the circuit's three majors and taken the championship in the same season, but Johnson entered Sunday's Ford 400 with a 63-point lead over Kenseth. If he didn't crash and if he didn't experience a mechanical breakdown, he knew the title would be his. If, if, if-- Johnson had been there before.
Here he comes, striding through the glass doors at the Doral Resort in Miami. Dressed in black slacks, a black golf shirt and shiny black shoes, Johnson lopes through the lobby 72 hours before the most important race of his career. He walks down a long hallway and enters a room full of reporters. When the lights hit him, Johnson smiles as if posing for his yearbook picture. Later he charms a small group with what he calls a story for "married guys" about how his wife won't let him keep his "smelly" (her word) racing memorabilia in their new house. On this day, like every day, Johnson is the most camera-friendly and well-spoken driver in NASCAR, which is why his sponsors love him--and why hordes of fans despise him.
NASCAR fans want to be able to relate to drivers, to see a bit of themselves inside that fire suit. But Johnson? He's married to the former Chandra Janway, a blonde, blue-eyed fashion model. He lives in a 12,000-square-foot mansion in a tony Charlotte suburb, and he keeps an apartment in the trendy Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea. He owns a Learjet and has a personal business manager. But what really galls the Johnson bashers--and the boos grew louder each week of the Chase--is that he talks like an Ivy League grad (in fact, he never finished a year of college) and looks like a Hollywood leading man. Jimmie Johnson? What could he possibly have in common with the blue-collar NASCAR masses?
Johnson's father, Gary, pondered that question as he zipped through the infield at Homestead in a souped-up golf cart last Saturday morning. "The boos hurt me a lot," said Gary. "I know Jimmie can come off as corporate. When the cameras are on, he doesn't always say what he's really thinking because that's not the right time. But everyone should know that Jimmie wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth."
Gary and Cathy Johnson raised Jimmie and his younger brothers, Jarit and Jessie, in a two-bedroom house in El Cajon, Calif., in the foothills of the Laguna Mountains 15 miles east of San Diego. For 15 years, Gary rose at 4 a.m. five days a week and drove a truck for B.F. Goodrich. To help make ends meet, Cathy drove a school bus. The Hell's Angels frequently rode their bikes through the neighborhood, and when Jimmie was four, Gary gave him his first motorized wheels, a minibike that Gary had put together with scavenged parts. Gary attached training wheels to the bike, which topped out at 10 mph, and on Christmas Day 1976, Jimmie's life of speed began.
On weekends the family piled into Gary's 1972 Ford van and headed to the desert for camping trips. At night the Johnsons slept in the van, and during the day the boys rode dirt bikes and dune buggies in the sand. Jimmie always pushed his bike to the limit, and that scared Gary. After several of Jimmie's friends were injured in motorcycle races--Jimmie won his first local championship at age eight--Gary steered his son into off-road truck racing when Jimmie was 12. "I wanted him to be in a vehicle that had a roll bar," says Gary. "Crazy me, I thought it would be safer."
The Chevy truck flipped end-over-end through the desert, tumbling over a 30-foot cliff into a ravine. It was the autumn of 1994, and Johnson was competing in the Baja 1000, an off-road race in Mexico's Baja California Peninsula. The 1,000-mile race took 22 hours or more to finish, and Johnson was leading the field when he reached a stretch of sand near San Javier. Darkness was falling, and the 19-year-old Johnson had been at the wheel for more than nine hours. While cruising at 110 mph, Johnson shut his eyes and, for an instant, nodded off. He missed a turn. When Johnson flashed awake, one thought throbbed in his head as the truck barreled out of control through the night: I'm going to die.