Jimmie Johnson: The Real Deal Behind the 2010 Sprint Cup Champion

Ashley McCubbinAnalyst IDecember 2, 2010

To understand how much a championship means to someone, they say that you should know the road that they took to get to where they are. So hold on as we travel back in time and learn about 2010 Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson was raised in a small town by the name of El Cajon. El Cajon is located in California on the foothills of Laguna Mountain, 15 miles north of San Diego. Johnson was raised by parents Gary and Cathy in a two-bedroom house with his two brothers Jarit and Jesse.

It was not easy for Gary and Cathy, who worked hard to raise their little boys. Gary would get up at four in the morning to drive a truck for B.F. Goodrich, while Cathy drove a school bus for extra money.

Even though they did not have the money, Gary managed to scavenge some old parts together and gave Johnson his first bike at the age of four, with training wheels of course, on Christmas Day.

He started his journey to championship stardom by traveling around the area with his brothers, racing against friends. He turned out to be successful at racing, winning his fist local championship at the age of eight.

However, some of his friends were killed in accidents, so Gary pushed his son toward off-road truck racing, hoping it would be safer. Instead, Gary’s worst fear almost came true.

Johnson went and entered the Baja 1000 at the age of 19. Over nine hours into the event, he was leading, yet he was also tired. Just for a second, he dozed off and rolled it down a cliff.

Lost in the middle of nowhere, Johnson had no hope of rescue. This turned out to be a good thing, as he thought over his career and how things had gotten to that point.

"I was young, and all I thought about was going fast and being aggressive," Johnson was quoted in the article The Soul of a Champion. "Well, I realized that night in the desert that I needed to be smarter. I still needed to push the car, but also I needed to bring it home clean. I needed to find that balance, and I began to find it that night in Mexico."

This incident in Mexico began Johnson’s true journey to the champion he is known as today.

His journey to stock car racing truly began, though, when Johnson had moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, to live with then two-time Craftsmen Truck Series Champion Ron Hornaday Jr.

Also living at the house was fellow Californian Kevin Harvick. Jimmie, at the time, could not pay rent money so he did chores and cooked his specialty, barbecued shrimp tacos, for those living there at the time.

"Jimmie was a clean-cut kid who just wanted to race," Hornaday explained in the article The Soul of a Champion. "He was the kind of kid you wanted to help out." Hornaday did exactly that.

Hornaday told fellow NASCAR owners and friends about Johnson, eventually landing Johnson a ride in the American Speed Association (ASA) Late Model division. Johnson went on to win rookie of the year in 1998, propelling him to the Busch Series in 1999.

The biggest stepping stone though was when he went to four-time cup champion Jeff Gordon for advice. Gordon noticed Johnson’s desire and passed the name over to his boss Rick Hendrick.

"I just found out that his contract is up soon, and he is shopping around for a ride," Gordon said. "When I heard that I ran and grabbed him and said, 'Don't sign anything with anyone until you talk to me first!' He's going to be the next big thing."

The result was Johnson getting a Cup ride in the new No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet, co-owned by Jeff Gordon and Rick Hendrick.

Jimmie Johnson began racing at the Cup level in 2002, where potential was seen right away. He won his first race at California Speedway in the Auto Club 500 and finished fifth in points, which was not normal at all for a rookie.

In most cases, rookies of this caliber would be recognized, yet all Johnson found himself known as was Gordon's protégé.

However, four years later, as the series back-to-back champion, he had his boss/teammate stunned at what he had accomplished. "I had no idea that Jimmie would develop into a champion," Gordon said.

"A lot of fans think everything has been handed to him on a silver platter because he’s so smooth, but they don’t understand his background. It’s made him hungry (for a championship)."

Of course his background and road to stardom was not the only thing that made him hungry; the disappointment he had to suffer through first promoted him to be even more determined to win the championship.

In 2003, Johnson finished fourth in points to Matt Kenseth. In 2004, he won four races in a row late in the season and tried to win the championship in honor of the 10 fallen heroes involved in a plane crash late in October.

He did not accomplish that feat, though, as he ended up finished second, nine points behind Kurt Busch. In 2005, he finished forth to Tony Stewart, due to a wreck in the final race of the year at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

As co-owner Rick Hendrick said, "It took some disappointment for Jimmie to get here, but he is matured, and now, as a racer, he is the whole package." That entire package finally began to come together in 2006.

Johnson showed right off the bat that he was the driver to beat winning the sport’s biggest race, the Daytona 500. Of course it all began to come together, thanks to some guidance from Hendrick.

As we know, every bit of big success in Nextel Cup comes thanks to a good driver and crew chief combination. Hendrick saw that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus had some issues and needed some guidance.

Johnson’s description of it states the fact that they both wanted it so bad that they were "butting heads in the process." So Hendrick pulled them into his office, ready to discuss things between them and if needed, separate them.

"It was getting to the point where Chad and Jimmie were having more bad days than good days," Hendrick said. "I called them into my office...and said 'If we're going to act like kids, we're going to have cookies and milk and we'll have some down time where we can talk about what you don't like about each."

With a play on what was seen as "childish behavior," he set the room up as if it was a kid’s room and served them Mickey Mouse cookies and milk. This meeting allowed both Knaus and Johnson to get all their feelings about each other.

"The meeting was supposed to be how we split the guys up," Hendrick said. "But in this meeting, these guys really put their heart on the table and they talked specifically about what they didn't like. Instead of holding it in, they were able to become closer friends and still respect each other's professional position in the team.

"I'm real proud of them because I would have bet money that we couldn't fix it. I think both of those guys would be successful in their own right, but I think they're stronger together."

"It took a lot of effort on each other's parts," Knaus later on said in a different article. "At that point, we were both tired and very frustrated. We were on the cusp on winning a championship for the first three years and we weren't able to pull it off. Expectations were high. We weren't able to deliver. There's a lot to wanting to deliver for Rick and Jimmie and I felt that I laid down a little. I didn't make the right decisions.

"It takes maturity, wisdom and you have to learn. We learned over a period of time. You have to go over life experiences and race car experiences to get what you really need. There was a point there that we had to make a decision whether we wanted to do this or not.

"We just had to learn to rededicate ourselves to the cause—and that's what we did." This conversation with Rick helped their relationship a lot, allowing them to now be the driver-crew chief pair to beat.

"Jimmie and Chad have something very, very special together," Gordon said in the article One More with Feeling. "I know everything that goes into their cars and everything about their set-ups, and they’re still beating us. It’s frustrating but you’ve got to give them credit. They’re the best right now."

"My relationship with Chad has been unlike any relationship I've had before with a crew chief," Johnson said in November of 2008. "We're close in age, which is a first for me, and we share a lot of things in common. We have two completely different personalities, and his strengths fit my weaknesses and my strengths fit his weaknesses. So I think the pairing of us both has been really good."

Since them fixing their differences, they have gone to create a dynasty as they have won the past five championships together.

Despite Johnson being the champion he is, there are some that don’t like him for who he is on the surface, but that’s something that’s unimportant to Jimmie right now.

"It used to keep me up at night," Johnson said in Sports Illustrated, "but not anymore. I can't think about all that. I just want to win another championship." This is something that sort of started at the beginning of his career, due to how big he was in star quality.

"When I started racing, I didn't have much going for me, other than that I could say all the right things—almost to a fault," Johnson said. "I can be freaking out inside, but then I open my mouth and I sound calm. I don't know where this device comes from. It helps me in racing because you never want to lose your cool, but it's also probably kept people from getting to know the real me."

As Johnson says in another article, "I'm not one that's going to sit up at night and say, `Wow, I need to be the funny guy or I need to be `The Intimidator' or I need to do back flips. I'm just doing my thing.''

Truthfully, in the long run it all doesn’t matter as those that like Johnson continue to, and Johnson, well he’ll just keep winning races.

"My story has been out there about how hard I've worked to get here," Jimmie said in the beginning of November 2008. "And the simple upbringing that I had in El Cajon, Calif., and how far away NASCAR was. That story is still out there and it's a story I'm very proud of.

"But today, man, I'm trying to race and win races and win championships. If people want to go back and look at that stuff and see the stories, then fantastic, because I feel I have a great story.

"But I can't spend my whole career trying to say, 'Hey, you need to respect me and you need to look at my upbringing because you might be a bigger fan of mine.' I've just got to go out and do my job and race hard. So that's my perspective on it."


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