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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Jimmie Johnson on his seventh championship

by Gordon Kirby
Jimmie Johnson wrote his name into American racing history by winning his seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup championship this year. Johnson scored the 80th win of his career in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway and joined NASCAR legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as the only men to win seven NASCAR titles. Johnson is 41 years old and reckons he has many more competitive years ahead of him so it's likely that he will exceed Petty and Earnhardt's championship record and emerge in a class of his own.

Johnson has been racing at NASCAR's top level for sixteen years, all with Rick Hendrick's multi-car Hendrick Motorsport's Chevrolet team. Johnson was spotted and selected by Hendrick's team leader Jeff Gordon who mentored Johnson through his first few years in Sprint Cup cars and remains a co-owner of Johnson's car after finally retiring for good this year.

"The first time I saw Jimmie on the track was a Nationwide test at Darlington back in 2000," Gordon recalls. "I was there helping Rick Hendrick's son Ricky. He had never been to Darlington before so I was there to give him my assistance and opinion. We were up on top of the truck watching some cars go 'round and this one particular car ran the line you needed to run to go fast, carrying the right amount of speed right up next to the wall and off the corner. I asked Ricky who was driving that car and he told me it was Jimmie Johnson. He said it was Jimmie's first time there as well. And I said, 'There's no way!'

"Later, I was down in the garage and I went over to Jimmie's car and introduced myself. I asked him how many times he'd been to Darlington and he said today was the first time. So that impressed me because Darlington is a tough track and it's not always a natural thing that comes to you the first time you run there. To me, that was the first sign that he had real talent and I kept my eye on him from that point on.

© Nigel Kinrade
"He continued to impress me with what I didn't think was the best equipment out there. I thought if you pick a guy like that who's working as hard as he's working and getting that much out of the car and you put him into a car and team and organization like Hendrick Motorsports I think he can do great things, and obviously, that proved to be true."

Johnson is an amiable, soft-spoken fellow who rarely loses his cool. He's also a complete gentleman, far removed from the traditional NASCAR image of a rough-hewn country boy. Johnson is a clean, precise driver renowned for his ability to analyze a car's handling and communicate his feelings to his longtime crew chief Chad Knaus. I asked Johnson to describe his best strengths.

"I feel like it's my work ethic and being able to fall into a rhythm in the car," he observed. "It's something I've found very similar to the cycling or physical fitness training aspect of my life. You're never comfortable in a race car and you're never comfortable when you're working out, but you've got to identify what a hundred percent is and bring yourself back up to the maximum. Finding that rhythm that you can fall into and enjoy is something I've always been able to do.

"I also think one of my big assets is that through all the chaos inside the car, I've always been able to communicate my feeling for the car. Maybe I don't know how to fix it, but I can understand what I'm feeling and communicate it. I've been surprised that Chad has been able to understand everything I've said to him over the years. That's really been the beauty of our relationship. I can be very descriptive and analytical but it's understanding what I'm saying that is the key and Chad is the guy whose been able to do that."

Johnson, Knaus and Hendrick's team dominated NASCAR from 2006-2010, winning five consecutive championships. He's been a little less effective in recent years, but has continued to win races every year and took his sixth title in 2013. The 2016 season started well as he scored his 76th career win in the year's second race and recorded his 77th win in round five. But Johnson then endured the longest win-less streak of his career--24 races--before scoring his 78th win at Charlotte in October. His 79th and 80th wins followed at Martinsville at the end of October and the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

"There are times when you're on top and deserve all the accolades that you and the team receive," Johnson remarked. "And there are times when you've got to dig deep and re-create yourself and your team. The last couple of years haven't been the most productive years for myself or Hendrick Motorsport, but the commitment to getting back on top and the work and time and effort that's gone into it is pretty darn amazing.

"I'm so proud of where the company has come in the last three or four months. It wasn't a fun period of time. It was frustrating but we had to put all that aside and make the car better. Rick (Hendrick) was tremendous. He went to a 24-hour wind tunnel test and he led by example. We were going to do everything we could. We were not going to lay down without a fight and as soon as we found the right combination all four of our cars had it and we were right back on top."

© Nigel Kinrade
Onboard computers and data gathering are not allowed by NASCAR on race weekends and Johnson is justifiably proud of the driver's role in Sprint Cup racing.

"In NASCAR, the driver ends up being the computer," he observes. "It's my job when we come to the track to go racing to validate all of the virtual testing that we do during the week. One thing I am very proud of is the human element in our sport. You really have two different worlds, the virtual world of modern technology and the limited use of all that stuff at the races. I'm the one that has to flow between those two spaces and help Chad and the team point it all in the right direction."

While modern Formula 1, Indy and prototype sports cars are engineered to handle perfectly through most of a race distance, NASCAR cars are never perfect. At 3,500 lbs the cars are heavy and run on small tires limited to nine and a half inches in width. The fuel tank is also hung out over the tail of the car so the balance of the car is always changing through the course of each fuel run.

"The biggest reason for the change in performance of the car during a given fuel run is that our fuel cell is mounted at the back of the car so the weight changes dramatically over the course of a run," Johnson says. "In order to keep the car turning sharp enough at the end of a run with no fuel in the car, you've got to start uncomfortably loose or with a lot of oversteer in the car and you've got to manage that so the car is good at the end of the run once you've burned off 18 gallons of fuel weighing more than 300 pounds. So there are a lot of compromises from the driver's seat in trying to manage a NASCAR race car."

Tire grip on oval tracks also changes dramatically over the course of a 500-mile race as more rubber is laid down. If the sun is shining it also bakes the rubber which can make the track very slick in the final stages of many races.

"The track surface changes and the ambient temperature, all those things affect the balance of the race car and the performance of the engine and tires," Johnson says. "There are some trends that we typically see when the sun goes down and the track picks up grip. We have more front aero percentage so it tends to make the cars turn stronger and the back of the car slide around more. But that said, you can go to a track and the exact opposite happens. So you scratch your head and wonder why. We study our race notes from previous events hard to see trends and be able to make the right decisions during the race."

In road racing there's an ideal line which few people deviate from, but on ovals the line is always changing in company with the track's grip factor.

© Nigel Kinrade
"With road racing, without a doubt there is a preferred line," Johnson observes. "You've got to hit your marks from the braking point to the turn-in point to where you track out of the corner. All that is so critical. You're not necessarily worried about momentum or minimum rpm drop like you are on an oval.

"I find that in NASCAR on ovals you're driving with more peripheral vision, letting the car float around and move where it wants to. You're trying not to scrub any speed or momentum. On an oval, there's a lot of room. It's pretty wide and the idea of a perfect line is much less than in road racing. It's all about keeping the momentum up and making sure when you go back to the throttle you've got 50 to 100 more rpm than the guys around you so that compounds as you go down the straightaway and you can put a couple of tenths in your pocket.

"We do two road courses each year at Watkins Glen and Sonoma and all that's out the window when we run those tracks. It's all about a specific line. That's what makes the difference."

An essential part of stock car racing is known as 'using the fender', as Dale Earnhardt Sr., the master of the art, used to call it. Johnson believes this is something that has to be done with considerable finesse.

"It's always been part of stock car racing that you can lean on somebody, loosen them up and use the bumper," Johnson remarked. "But the aerodynamics of the car are so important. If you're on a track with high corner speeds you don't want to be door-slamming somebody. We now have a lot of little flares on our fender wells and the shape of the side of the car is so important that any door-to-door contact with another driver is going to damage the performance of your car.

"Fortunately, the bumper-to-bumper contact doesn't affect us as much. The bumpers are pretty strong and you can get in there and nudge somebody. But all that goes out the window when we go to a short track. You go to Martinsville and it doesn't matter. You see damaged cars without any sides on them fly around that racetrack. So you've got to pick your battles and on the big tracks you have to make sure you don't hurt your car."

NASCAR's schedule is the longest in all of sport covering ten months and 36 races plus three special events making for 39 race weekends each year.

"It is very demanding," Johnson admits. "Right now we have three weeks off during the season and an eight week off-season. That's pretty short! If I could find another four or five weeks, it would change my quality of life. But it is what is and you've got to make the best of it.

© Nigel Kinrade
"I spent many of my younger years just wanting to race each and every weekend. I guess having a family has certainly changed that. I'm 41 now and I do have other interests in life. The 39 races in total take a toll on that. This is my sixteenth season racing Cup cars. As you can imagine, the walls of my motorhome get awfully small, but I find things to do at each track. My 'bike is always in my bus. I go out for a couple of hours of riding whenever I can and explore the local countryside."

Johnson is a fitness fanatic who cycles on a regular basis and also competes occasionally in triathlons.

"Last winter I ran a half marathon around the Charlotte area and two years ago I did a half 'Iron Man' in Naples, Florida," he relates. "I try to target one big race a year, but I found, especially after doing the half 'Iron Man' in January, that the motivation ends quickly when the season comes to an end. We have the holidays through December and it's hard to stay focused on my training program. So I found the half 'Iron Man' much more mentally challenging than I expected. I've run four half marathons and look forward to running a full marathon someday, but right now I just don't have the weekends to do it.

"I was on more of a strength routine during my younger years. It served a great purpose, but training for and competing in triathlons is more a full body work out. I really enjoy being in the water. If I can find open water I will, but I enjoy the pool as well. Cycling is something I really enjoy. I've never really loved running but I've become a proficient runner, but I can tolerate it and know it's a good thing for me. From a driver's standpoint, the full body endurance you build from triathlons is a great thing."

Johnson says he sees no signs of retirement anywhere on his horizon.

"My wife and two young children prefer to stay at home rather than travel all the time and that makes it difficult sometimes," he says. "But I'm all-in with racing. If I wasn't racing Cup cars all the time, I'd be racing something else. I can't see myself racing full-time in Cup cars when I'm 50. I guess there's an end out there that's closer than it's ever been, but I have no idea when I can identify that.

"We'll see what opportunities happen. If we were to win one or two more championships that might sway me to consider slowing down sooner rather than later. But I plan on racing for a lot of years. I love sports car racing and would love to do the Daytona 24 hours again. I'd love to get back to my roots and do some off-road trucks again because they are among the most extreme vehicles on the planet."

Meanwhile, Jimmie's goal is to win another NASCAR title or two. If he succeeds he'll go down in history one step ahead of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, stock car racing's greatest legends.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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