One year, I tagged along with Jimmie Johnson as he made the media rounds in Manhattan the week after he won the NASCAR Cup championship. We piled into an elevator that took us to the top of the Empire State Building, and then we climbed another level or two higher than “normal” tourists are allowed to go, which was a perfect metaphor for what happening in his career: He reached the top, and then he kept going.
Johnson walked a few laps around that most famous of buildings, a 30-second stroll that he spent soaking in a 360-degree view of Manhattan that only a privileged few get to experience.
I also rode with him to appointments and watched as he answered questions in front of a studio audience of fans. Every second of that entire day was devoted to telling Johnson how great he was. A writer from a New York media outlet, surprised at Johnson’s easygoing demeanor despite all the hubbub, asked if his subdued reaction was just his natural California cool.
“No,” Johnson said. “I’m hung over.”
I thought about that moment when Johnson announced his retirement in November. Just as his cool exterior masked inner turmoil that day in New York City, he made winning seven championships look easy. It wasn’t. He made it seem like pressure didn’t faze him. It did.
Johnson won seven championships, tied for the most ever, and he didn’t clinch any of them until the last day of the season. Five times he entered the final race of the season with a lead and held on to win the championship. He overcame a deficit once, and on one occasion he started the final race in a four-way tie and won. The list of drivers he outdueled on the final Sunday at Homestead is a who’s who of modern NASCAR greatness — Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch have eight championships among them, and it would be more if Johnson hadn’t beaten them. Denny Hamlin (37), Carl Edwards (28) and Mark Martin (40) have combined for 105 wins but zero championships, in part because Johnson denied them their chances.
Imagine winning seven Super Bowls with fourth-quarter touchdown drives, and you start to get the idea of the enormity of what Johnson accomplished.
Johnson’s results under pressure were remarkable, as was his apparent ability to transcend that pressure. He always radiated detached composure, the California cool the New York writer wondered about, as if the enormity of the moment didn’t get to him at all. That appearance of cool was just that — an appearance. Inside, he was a boiling cauldron of anxiety.
“I don’t know how I look calm, because it’s sure as hell not calm inside,” he told me in November, a few weeks before announcing his retirement. “It’s a nice illusion I’m able to give off, I guess.”
The inner Johnson and the outer Johnson formed a fascinating duality that has lasted throughout his career. And the duality has gone beyond calm vs. stressed. From his rookie season in 2002 through his dominating run of seven championships in 11 seasons, fans labeled Johnson as too boring, too vanilla, too corporate.
Those labels were fair, I suppose, if all you ever saw of Johnson were the interviews he gave after a race. He was good-looking, polite, well spoken, always thanked Lowe’s, and never cussed anybody out or decked them, not even when they deserved it.
But when the cameras went away, a different Johnson emerged — the Johnson who gave out bottles of tequila at his retirement press conference. The people who know that version of Johnson are baffled that anybody would ever call him vanilla. “The best way to describe Jimmie would be: work hard, play hard,” Marshall Carlson, president of Hendrick Motorsports, once said. “Anything he does, he does it to the max.”
Take, for example, the party Johnson threw on St. Barts a few days before he got married. While his wife-to-be and her friends had a spa day, Johnson came up with a party he called Speedo Run. He and his friends wore Speedos, wigs and fake mustaches and went barhopping on mopeds.
Former driver Brian Vickers was there that day and for many other Johnson shenanigans. “Jimmie’s very mature,” Vickers once said. “I’ve never thought that maturity means you have to be boring. Maturity means you know when to play and when not to. Maturity to me is knowing what’s the appropriate time more so than what’s appropriate. Jimmie surfing on top of a golf cart on his way to driver intros is probably not appropriate. Surfing on top of his golf cart during a drunken charity event is probably appropriate.”
The latter is in reference to the time Johnson was riding on top of a golf cart in the offseason, fell off and broke his wrist and then was so embarrassed he fed the media a totally made-up story about falling out of the cart. Anybody who knew him knew that story was baloney as soon as he told it.
One reason Johnson became an all-time great is that he rarely drove on the track like he sometimes lived off of it. The go-fast/take-it-easy debate is the equivalent of considering whether to take an extra base in baseball or to throw into coverage in football. There are times to go for it and times not to, and if a driver screws up, it was the wrong time. Johnson almost always made the right decision. But sometimes, during races, his inner wild man wanted to come out.
He told me once that it was like he had an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. The angel told him to settle for a decent finish and a good points day. The devil told him to go for the win.
In 2006, the year he won his first championship, Johnson sat in second behind Kevin Harvick late in the next-to-last race of the season. During what turned out to be the final caution, Johnson had to decide what to do. Should he go for the win or settle for second? If he won, he would pad his lead going into the final race. If he wrecked, his championship hopes would dim.
“Those two characters were on my shoulders. They negotiated under that final caution,” he says. “I knew if I could get inside Kevin on Turn 2 coming to the checkers, I negotiated with my two personalities that I would then really race for it. But if I didn’t get position inside, it wasn’t worth it.”
Once the action started, Johnson peeked his nose under Harvick, but he didn’t have enough. He settled for second. The most important pass of the most important season of Johnson’s career was one he didn’t make.
I interviewed Johnson a few weeks before he announced his retirement. I was writing a story about the stress of racing at Miami with the championship on the line, and he was an obvious expert on the subject. He was supposed to call me at 1 p.m., and at 1 p.m., my phone rang because that’s how he rolls.
We talked about 2006, the first of his unprecedented string of five straight championships, and the pressure of overcoming damage his car suffered early in the race. He fought to get himself back into position. But as his car faded slightly, so did his confidence, even though he was still safely in position to take the title.
He had been in contention in 2002, 2004 and 2005 but didn’t win the championship in any of those seasons. As he drove that final race of 2006, he was worried he was going to come close but ultimately fail again.
“To know we had been close the two years before, really close, to know we had been in the hunt, there was an obnoxious amount of pressure. It was all self-inflicted. In my head, I’m wondering if this is my last chance. You only get so many looks at a championship. I’ve already had two real ones, if not three or four,” he said. “Am I going to be the guy who should have won one but never did? It was just intense. I was thinking, ‘Oh no, I can’t screw this up, I can’t lose this.’ That pressure was just gnarly.”
California cool he was most definitely not, as that anxiety manifested itself physically. His stomach hurt, he had heartburn, his heart pounded, he couldn’t catch his breath. It sounds horrible, even though he ultimately won the championship. I asked Johnson if that was a fun day. Fun would not be the right word, but formative would be.
“It was a step into who I am today,” he said. “I obviously had a really difficult time with that one and got it done.”
The key factor there is not that he didn’t feel the stress but that he learned to react to it differently. “I started to develop ways to handle it better. And we got better four or five years in a row. Not that it was ever comfortable,” he said. “I learned to appreciate the pressure in that knotted-up stomach. ‘All right, this is what I live for.’ I learned how to start managing it. I don’t think I ever figured it out. But I certainly learned how to deal with it a hell of a lot better.”
And that led to more championships.
And more hangovers.
(Top photo courtesy of @JimmieJohnson)