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"Is Peyton Manning that interesting?" Johnson asks quietly. "Tom Brady? Derek Jeter? How about Tiger Woods? I guess that's what I don't get about the Vanilla Thing. I guess I've always tried to do the right thing. I thought that's what people wanted."
He shakes his head. It doesn't matter. He has plenty of fans—"I'm anywhere from second to fifth in popularity, according to our numbers," he says—and, anyway, what difference does it make? He has a great sponsor (Lowe's, of course) and a great team ("Those guys work so hard,") and a great wife ("I couldn't do it without Chani"). And he's winning. There's nothing in the world like winning.
— 48 —
Eighteen years old. Jimmie Johnson sat on a rock near his truck, or rather the twisted metal sculpture that had only hours before been a full-sized Chevy pickup truck. He thought hard about what kind of man he wanted to become. It was a good time to think. He was lost somewhere near El Arco, Mexico, somewhere on the Baja California peninsula, somewhere in the middle of nowhere. How did he get there? Well, technically, he knew exactly how he had gotten there: He had been racing in the Baja 1000, he had been driving for 20 straight hours on rocks and ridges, and then he'd hit a smooth road, too smooth, and nodded off for an instant. Just an instant. The turn came too fast, the truck hit a rock, the truck jumped the edge, and Jimmie knew that he and his codriver, Tom Geivis, were going to die. They were falling off a mountain. Goners. Only, no, they lucked out. They flipped and flipped, again and again, too many times to count, until the truck crashed in a bed of rocks. Geivis was knocked unconscious but felt O.K. when he got up. Johnson was conscious through it all.
As he sat on that rock—and he sat there for a long time because it took a full day for a helicopter to spot them—Johnson had something like a revelation. He could die in a race car. O.K., it might not be the light from heaven flashing about Saint Paul, but it felt pretty important to Jimmie Johnson at that moment. He had always known the danger, and yet he had never known the danger at all.
And in that moment, as rain drizzled in the cool night, he made himself a promise. He would not be reckless. He would not be rash. He would do everything he could to take danger out of race car driving.
Jimmie Johnson drives a golf cart from hole to hole. He's at the Jimmie Johnson Foundation golf tournament in Del Mar, Calif., early last month, and he must mingle. This means one thing: More or less every person he sees will ask him if he plans to surf on top of the cart.
"Goin' surfing, Jimmie?" one golfer asks.
"Watch out for big waves," says another.
"Better get your helmet," says a third.