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IT'S EIGHT O'CLOCK on a Tuesday night in South Beach, 25 miles and a world away from Homestead-Miami Speedway, where in five days Jimmie Johnson will try to make history in the 2008 Sprint Cup season finale. But on this evening NASCAR's reigning champion has traded his firesuit for a charcoal-gray Dolce & Gabbana and parked his racing Chevy to ride in an enormous black Denali. He's in the backseat, sitting close to his wife, Chandra, who's in black-and-white Marc Jacobs. ("Flowy" is how she describes the dress.) They are on their way to a charity gala at Jungle Island, an animal theme park in Miami.
As the SUV carries them past the clubs and the street performers and the tourists aglow with sunburn, they talk about everything but racing, musing on such things as what they might name a yacht should they ever buy one—she says Simpatico, he says Worthless—or whether they'd like to own a vineyard. (Absolutely!)
The setting, so at odds with the gas-fumes-and-big-box-corporate-blandness that surrounds NASCAR, prompts another passenger to wonder: Why do sports fans know Jimmie Johnson only as the guy pushing his Lowe's number 48 into the lead, burning rubber in the winner's circle and then thanking sponsors and crew for making it all happen? Why don't they know him as a world-traveling, multidimensional, surprisingly loquacious sports star? There's a pause before Chandra, looking straight at Jimmie as she answers, says, "You're too nice." He smiles when she brings up his pretty-boy image. "Maybe," Chandra says with a laugh, "if you were an arrogant ass, you'd get more attention."
"It used to keep me up at night," says Jimmie, gazing out the tinted window. "But not anymore." He takes a breath, and the smile disappears. "I can't think about all that," he says. "I just want to win another championship."
ON SUNDAY this son of a construction equipment operator and a mother who drove a school bus raced to glory that even Richard Petty, David Pearson and Dale Earnhardt never achieved: a third straight driver's championship at NASCAR's highest level. By finishing 15th in the Ford 400, Johnson beat Carl Edwards by 69 points in the season standings to join Cale Yarborough (1976, '77, '78) as the only drivers in the 59-year history of NASCAR to three-peat. Johnson entered the Homestead race with a nearly insurmountable 141-point lead over Edwards, allowing him to race conservatively and avoid trouble. He finished 28.6 seconds behind Edwards, who took the checkered flag and the consolation of winning more Cup races (nine) than any other driver in 2008.
What better time to recognize Jimmie—that's the given name, not James, of the 33-year-old native of El Cajon, Calif., who grew up racing dirt bikes and off-road trucks—for what he is: the greatest stock car driver of the 21st century.
In 108 Cup races over the last three years Jimmie had a series-high 22 wins (10 more than his closest rival, Edwards), and led all drivers in top five finishes (48) and top 10s (70). He was especially dominant in the 10-race Chase for the Cup each season, or "money time," as it's called in the garage. In the 30 Chase races over that three-year span Jimmie reached Victory Lane eight times (27.7%); the only other driver who was even in the Chase the last three years, Matt Kenseth, had one win (3.3%).
But unlike with many past champions—and this is one reason Jimmie remains somewhat of a mystery, even on the track, to die-hard fans—Jimmie's excellence isn't easily discerned. Earnhardt, for instance, was a classic banger who wouldn't hesitate to knock another driver into the wall if he thought he needed to. And Jeff Gordon, during his three championship seasons in the 1990s, raced with a keen sense of anticipation and freakish car control. But Jimmie's signature talent isn't something that can be seen from the stands.
"Jimmie has the ability to handle multiple thoughts at the same time like no one else in NASCAR," says Jack Stark, a sports psychologist who has worked with more than a dozen NASCAR drivers, including Johnson, as well as with hundreds of players in college football and the NFL. "On the track he juggles where he's going, where he needs to be, what he's feeling in the car and how he needs to express that to his crew chief so the right changes can be made to the car at the next pit stop. Most guys can't stay focused for the full four hours of a race, but Jimmie can. He's like Peyton Manning in that they both have problem-solving minds.
"Plus—and this is a big reason why Jimmie has been successful—he's a genuinely nice guy, and his crew feels a great sense of loyalty to him. Ron Malec, his car chief, could go anywhere and double his salary, but Ron stays because Jimmie cares about other people. They basically have no turnover on that team. And, of course, it helps to have a crew chief like Chad Knaus."