Jimmie Johnson won his sixth Sprint Cup championship last season, putting him closer to NASCAR icons Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, who totaled seven apiece — a number Johnson will pursue as the 2014 season unfolds.
Barring catastrophe, there seems to be little doubt that Johnson will get to seven — and beyond. He appears to be in the prime of his career and in a good spot emotionally to push forward.
“I think you see some guys win in football or basketball and they get a big head,” says team owner Rick Hendrick. “They become bigger than life. But with Jimmie, it’s like it’s the record book for him. That’s what he wants. But he’s not letting it get to him. He’s the most unique guy I’ve ever met. He doesn’t have any ego. I don’t ever see it. He’s driven to be the best. That’s enough for him. He wants to write the record book. He’s nowhere near satisfied. He doesn’t care about talking about himself. He doesn’t care about the fanfare. He’s after the stats. At the end of the day, he wants things on the mantel.
“I’ve always said I’ve seen so many guys work their ass off to get to a level, and then they get all twisted up in the head and they kill it and blow it by getting off track from what got them there. He’s not like that. He just gets better and better.”
As Johnson prepares his quest to continue re-writing the record book, we pose six questions to the six-time champion.
How does the 2013 championship differ from the other five?
Jimmie Johnson: Granted, the question now is can you get seven and all that. But we had that “Can you keep the streak alive?” thing on our shoulders forever and ever. It maybe didn’t let us enjoy the moment. We maybe were looking ahead and to what the next year might be like. This one feels better. I think I’m more comfortable in my own skin in my sport within my team. Maybe that’s the best way to describe it. I’m comfortable and enjoying this much more than I ever have.
You failed to win championships in 2011 and 2012 after winning five in a row. Did you feel like you had to sort of re-establish yourself?
No, because I felt like it’s been a short period of time. In 2011, we didn’t have a good second half of the Chase. But then we came back in 2012 and really had a shot to win it. So, I don’t feel like this was me trying to re-certify myself. I do feel like, though, that we started over with a clean sheet of paper in a lot of respects. We’re enjoying it a lot like our first championship. It has a little bit more significance and weight. For me, it has more meaning due to the time we have together, the impact it’s made for Rick with his 11 championships and the opportunity to share this with my family. To watch (daughter) Genevieve kind of grasp what’s going on — the parenthood side of life has changed me a lot. To go through all of this now as a parent, that has a pretty good effect for me.
What are the challenges in keeping this level of success?
I think keeping the 48 team in its sweet spot. The bond that we have … it’s a big part of our success. Where our sport’s heading is the other piece. There’s change coming. Don’t know exactly what it looks like yet, but from the competition side, we know the rules package is going to change. You hear rumbling about the format changing. Our sport is ever-changing, trying to adjust to an ever-changing world. The target is moving on us. I feel like we can chase the target pretty darn well, especially if we stay connected and united as we have. I don’t see why that would change any.
You’ve had the same core group of key people with you through the championships, but a lot of other people have revolved in and out of the team. How involved have you been in keeping the team rolling along through the changes?
It’s really in Chad’s (crew chief Chad Knaus) department. But there have been years where he thought my influence might help a potential crew member leave a team and come to Hendrick. I’ve made phone calls and talked to guys I only knew in passing and tried my best driver technique to get them to come on board. There were years that I didn’t really know the new guys. Chad said, “You need to get to know them.” I’d come in on Tuesday and train with them. I just follow his lead on all that.
Some people think you just drive the car, but your input goes far beyond that, right?
Yes, I’ve got to be careful now when I say things because people are really listening. If I just make a casual comment, it could lead us down a road — a bad road if I don’t know what I’m talking about. So I’m much more strategic when I say things among the Hendrick management. Chad and I can banter back and forth. A casual comment (and) I can get the management group looking in the wrong direction.
You’ve accomplished so much in recent years. What continues to drive you?
I’m usually never comfortable from a work standpoint or trying to learn and advance and compete. I guess I was born with a lot of that. It’s a joking thing to say, but I’m serious about it — I’ve not been good at anything my entire life. And I’m finally good at something. I’ve worked my whole life. I’ve raced for 33 years now, and I’m finally confident in what I do in a car and how I can help lead my team. I know the tracks. I know my equipment. I’m finally “there.”
By Mike Hembree
Follow Mike on Twitter: @mikehembree
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.