Jimmie Johnson nods. "I know this will sound like a cliché, but there's always another challenge," he says. In 2008, when the undefeated New England Patriots played his hometown Chargers, Johnson was asked which team he wanted to win. "The Patriots," he said. Later, his publicist asked why he would say that. Johnson shrugged.
"Perfection," he said. "I always root for perfection."
— 48 —
Twenty-four years old. Jimmie Johnson was driving his black Alltel car in a Busch Series race at Watkins Glen, in the heart of New York State, when a most unexpected thing happened: His brakes went out. It doesn't matter if you're Jimmie Johnson, Junior Johnson or Magic Johnson—when you push down on the brakes and the car doesn't slow, there's nothing to do but hold on tight and hope against hope that you don't hit anything too hard.
Johnson pulled his car hard to the right, and his tires kicked up grass and mud. But the car didn't slow down any. The only thing that did slow down was time. The next two seconds ... Johnson would say a million thoughts coursed through his mind. Then he saw the wall straight ahead, the white wall, concrete for sure, and his body went limp. There was nothing left to do except hit that wall. His car went airborne. Johnson would remember the loudest thought pounding in his head: This is really bad.
And then the car hit the wall. It was not concrete, though. The guard rail had been cushioned by giant white blocks of Styrofoam. After the car hit, Johnson felt shooting pain in his neck. But this comforted him. Dead people don't have pain in their necks. He struggled to get his helmet off; his arms worked! He tried to get out of the car; his legs worked too! He climbed to the top of the car and heard the most enormous sound. Cheering. Wild, unchained, irrepressible cheers. And he raised his arms high above his head like Rocky after he reached the top of the museum steps. There was no lesson in this crash except, perhaps, the greatest lesson of all: He was alive!
Jimmie Johnson sits in the Tonight Show green room. He has the dressing room right across from Christian Slater's. He will race golf carts with Conan O'Brien in a couple of hours. His spokesperson, Curley, is admonishing him for wearing sneakers and no jacket. Johnson says, "This is my image. I worked hard to create this image." And then, as silence fills the little dressing room, he wants to work.
"Name a driver," he says. "Go ahead. Name any driver."
"Mark will be the guy on the bottom of the racetrack grinding it out. When he comes on you, you just let him go past because you have so much respect for how hard he works and how much he will grind it out."