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Then, finally, here comes Junior Johnson. How he does come on. He comes tooling across the infield in a big white dreamboat, a brand-new white Pontiac Catalina four-door hardtop sedan. He pulls up, and as he gets out he seems to get more and more huge. First his crew-cut head and then a big jaw and then a bigger neck and then a huge torso, like a wrestler's, all done up rather modish and California modern, with a red-and-white candy-striped sport shirt, white ducks and loafers.
"How you doing?" says Junior Johnson, shaking hands, and then he says, "Hot enough for ye'uns?"
"The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!"
Esquire, March 1965
There are no lasts in American folklore. New times bring new heroes. And the Newest American Hero wears a khaki suit in a dark room under a bright spotlight. The smell of banquet steak lingers in the air. Jimmie Johnson hates wearing suits, of course. When this luncheon ends, he will not wait 10 minutes to tear the suit off. There's nothing interesting or strange about that. Jimmie Johnson drives race cars. Race car drivers do not like wearing suits that can catch fire. ¶ What is interesting is that, uncomfortable or not, Jimmie Johnson looks just right in the suit. His tie does not dangle at an awkward angle. His shirt looks freshly pressed. His 30-waist pants have creases that could cut through beer cans. He does not sweat under the lights. Every hair stays in place. The Newest American Hero looks like a young entrepreneur. He might be about to make an offer on your company.
"I feel lucky every day," Jimmie Johnson says. His clear voice fills the room; he has used a microphone before. His voice carries no detectable accent other than American. Later he will tell you that only sharks scare him more than talking in front of people, but there is no way the man talking is scared. He looks not merely confident; he looks and sounds as though he was born in a suit and spoke his first words at an awards banquet.
"I'm just so fortunate," he says, and then he casually mentions his sponsor (Lowe's, of course) and his racing team, led by crew chief Chad Knaus ("they are incredible"), and his wife, Chani ("my best friend"). There is applause, a short standing ovation.
That's when Junior Seau takes the stage. This is his fund-raiser—the Junior Seau Foundation Teammates Luncheon, in San Diego in early October—and the six-time All-Pro linebacker attacks it with the same ferocity with which he used to attack running backs for the Chargers. Junior bullies people in the crowd to raise their bids on auction items. Junior pokes fun at his mother for not exercising more and at his father for having droned on too long during the invocation. Nobody is out of his reach. Junior Seau is a runaway train, and now he looks over Jimmie Johnson, measures him.
"I don't get you, man," Junior shouts. "You're up here, and you're all humble and meek and stuff. And then you get on the racetrack, and you're the Man! You're out there racing and slamming into cars. You've won three Super Bowls, man. You are the best ever. The best ever! And then you're up here, man, and you're like quiet and nice. What's that all about?"