Seeing RED

Don't let the kind, respectful exterior fool you; when Jimmie Johnson gets in a race car, he will do whatever it takes to win

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“You are confident, frank and can be outspoken.”

— From Jimmie Johnson’s Management By Strengths profile

EL CAJON, Calif. — Nobody around him believes that Jimmie Johnson is RED. It just doesn’t make any sense. Chad Knaus, Johnson’s volatile crew chief, yes, absolutely, he’s RED, he’s the very definition of RED, his photograph should be included when explaining what RED even means. But Jimmie Johnson? RED just doesn’t make sense.

See, every single employee in Rick Hendrick’s giant Automotive Group and Motorsports Division takes a Management By Strengths profile test. Hendrick does not just believe in these tests; he incorporates them into every facet of the business. In his dealerships, employees will wear name tags with their management color. Managers are encouraged to study the tests to help people work better together. It’s a big deal for Rick Hendrick, something he believes is a big part of his company’s success.

The colors, more or less, represent as followed:

BLUE — Outgoing, passionate, enthusiastic, perhaps a bit of a dreamer, can be disorganized.

YELLOW — Agreeable, patient, reliable, avoids confrontation, likes structure and dislikes conflict.

GREEN — Detailed, analytical, organized, might be too cautious and too much of a perfectionist.

RED — Direct, independent, driven, impatient, not always a great listener, hungry for results.

Of course, the  colors will blend together. People are too complicated to be completely BLUE or YELLOW or RED. Well, Knaus is pretty RED. But if you had to pick a color family for Jimmie Johnson, well, let’s best honest, RED seems just about the last color you would choose. Here we are, 14 years after he burst onto the NASCAR scene by winning the pole at his first Daytona 500, and he’s piling up numbers that stagger the mind. Heck, the numbers stagger HIS OWN mind. He has won 74 races, which is two shy of that giant shadow of Dale Earnhardt. He has won six Sprint Cup championships and is in pretty good position to win a record-tying seventh this year. “Beyond my wildest dreams,” he says.

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And how has he done it? How has Jimmie Johnson, described first and foremost as a “nice guy” by everyone who has met him, closed in on Dale Earnhardt, the Intimidator, the Man in Black, the reddest RED who ever stepped behind the wheel of a stock car?

When you break down Jimmie Johnson, you see lots of BLUE — the extroverted dreamer side.

You see the YELLOW — the good-natured patience that has marked his career.

You can even see the GREEN — Johnson has a perfectionist streak and is known for replaying races again and again in his mind the night after.

But where’s the RED? Where’s that fuse, that rage, that mean streak that has pushed so many of motorsports’ greatest drivers? Some of NASCAR’s most impassioned fans — the ones who still love Earnhardt, who still wear black shirts with No. 3 on them — will tell you that Johnson just doesn’t have RED in him. That, they say, is why they so passionately root against him. He’s boring. He’s colorless. Where’s his outlaw side?  Where’s his rebel side? With Dale behind the wheel, yes, you could feel his hunger, his desperation, his fury, his torment. That was the connection. Life’s hard. Dale understood.

But Jimmie Johnson? What’s hard about his life? He’s just happy. Friendly. Respectful. Even Knaus, when asked what is the hardest part of of working with Jimmie, grumps: “Jimmie is just such a nice guy. … he doesn’t race dirty. He doesn’t get aggravated. … He’s just a super, super nice fella.”

Then, maybe they’re missing something. Maybe everyone is missing something about NASCAR’s greatest driver. After all, Johnson’s profile is blood RED.

“Ask him to tell you the Lowe’s story,” says Julie Cunnyngham, the marketing director for sports and partnerships at Lowe’s.

* * * * * *

You are intolerant of mediocrity,

— From Jimmie Johnson’s Management By Strengths profile

Jimmie Johnson drives around El Cajon, the town where he grew up, and he remembers the beginning. His family always raced. The Johnson family did not have a lot. But they had bicycles and motorbikes, and because they lived high in Crest Mountain, they also had gravity. Johnson still thinks about the thrill of riding down the mountain at seemingly impossible speeds, just on the brink of losing control. When he was still a kid, Johnson realized that he had a natural knack for controlling vehicles. It was hard to describe; he could just feel a connection with the motorbike or truck or dune buggy or go-kart. Racing was the only future he could imagine.

Herb Fishel saw him first. Fishel was already a legend by then; he was executive director of General Motors’ legendary racing division. The story went that when Fishel was a baby, he would pull the nipple off his bottles so he could wash his toy cars in milk. He began as an engineer for General Motors and, over time, tilted the company toward racing. He worked with just about all the big stars. In 2001, Fishel’s GM became the first automaker to sweep the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500 and 24 Hours of Le Mans. A decade earlier, Fishel watched Johnson, then 15, perform well in an off-road race in Los Angeles and decided that Johnson was auto racing’s next big star.

Johnson felt sure then that his future was in open-wheel racing. He grew up idolizing the Mears brothers, Rick and Roger, who grew up in Bakersfield and raced in the Indianapolis 500. Chevrolet won the Indy 500 six straight years in Johnson’s childhood, and when Fishel expressed his admiration, Johnson saw himself winning the Indy 500 one day.

“When I was 16, Chevy said, ‘Hey, remember your IndyCar dream?’” Johnson says. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ And they say, ‘Well, we’re pulling out. We don’t sell cars that look like that. It makes no sense for us to be involved. If you want a career in motorsports, NASCAR is it. You’ve got to move to Charlotte.’ A week later, I had a one-way ticket to Charlotte.”

Well, Jimmie Johnson always was adaptable. That’s the YELLOW in him. He moved to Charlotte immediately and slowly began his climb. Key word: Slowly. Johnson was no overnight success. It took 10 years for Johnson to get a chance at NASCAR’s highest level. Fishel had told Rick Hendrick to keep an eye on Johnson, and Hendrick patiently watched. Very patiently. “I think patience is one of my strong points,” Hendrick says. His management color is BLUE.

At the same time, Hendrick’s star driver, Jeff Gordon, was getting to know Johnson, and he was impressed. It wasn’t just the driving. Johnson was not overwhelmingly successful in the Busch (now Xfinity) Series, sort of the Class AAA of NASCAR. But there was something about how Johnson carried himself, the way he inspired trust in teammates and competitors, the happy looks in the eyes of his sponsors. Johnson expected to do everything well. That’s the GREEN in him.

In 2002, Hendrick and Gordon decided to do something unprecedented; they teamed up to create a new race team. The team would be given the same car and setup as Gordon’s championship team. It was basically like founding an NFL expansion franchise with players and coaches from the previous year’s Super Bowl winner. Gordon and Hendrick decided to give this golden ticket to Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson had already turned 26 years old. He had been struggling for years to get this chance and he had a thorough understanding of the opportunity he was being given. He went all out. That’s the blue in him. He became a sponsor’s dream in the friendly way he handled every appearance and schmoozed with business people. He became a favorite of reporters by the way he tried to thoughtfully answer every question.

And as a driver, well, he was just about ideal there too. Where other drivers tend to be ferocious in their demands — they insist that the car feel EXACTLY right, after all, it’s their neck on the line out there on the track — Johnson drove the car with few complaints. He did not try to impose his will. Knaus knew how to set up fast cars, and Johnson would find ways to drive them even if he did not always feel comfortable behind the wheel.

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“In some ways,” he says now, “I think I should have been more forceful in my opinions. But I knew that I was getting an amazing opportunity. It’s just that …”

He pauses. Johnson does not like complaining or complainers; all that seems a copout to him. He does not know exactly how to say that while his golden ticket with Hendrick and Gordon and Knaus was absolutely amazing — “I think about how few drivers get that sort of opportunity,” he says — well, there were some disadvantages too. For instance: The pressure to win right away was intense. Really intense. “I believe Jimmie has the whole package,” Hendrick told reporters before he’d even raced his first time. When asked about expectations, Johnson half-jokingly said: “Jeff told me I just have to win four championships in seven years.”

It was more than pressure. The fan and media perception of him was often harsh; people thought he was just born on Lucky Street. When he won, it was because of the equipment and the team and Knaus. When he lost, well, he was squandering the best opportunity any young driver had ever been given. He won three races his rookie year. He finished second in the championship to Matt Kenseth in his second year. He won eight races and finished a close second to Kurt Busch in the championship his third year. It was just about as remarkable a start as any driver in the history of NASCAR.

And approximately nobody was impressed. Heck, with all the equipment and power and genius behind him, the only acceptable place was first. When he finished fifth in the Cup in 2005, there were questions: “What’s wrong with Jimmie Johnson?” And: “Can he win the big one?” Some thought him too conservative a driver. Some thought him too buttoned up. Most, though, thought his ability to win the championship came down to a simple thing.

“I would read all these stories,” he says, “that said that I was too nice a guy. I thought, ‘Really? I’m too nice? You don’t even know me.’”

“Do you mean you’re not a nice guy?” you ask him.

He shrugs. “Not on the race track,” he says.

* * * * * *

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Jimmie needs to be candid and get to the point.

 Chad needs to give some space and respect Jimmies privacy.

 — Managements by Strengths suggestions for how Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus should work together

The Management by Strengths profile measures each person in four categories:

1. Directness

2. Extroversion

3. Structure

4. Pace

Those are pretty easy to define. How direct are you? How outgoing? Do you prefer structure or do you like freedom? And how fast do you like things moving?

Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus have similar profiles, which is weird if you have ever met them. They seem very different. Knaus seems much more intense. Johnson seems much more friendly. Knaus seems much more of a yeller. Johnson seems much more of a listener. But the profile says that both are extremely fast-paced people who like being direct. Both prefer working outside of a structured environment, meaning they want their independence.

The one difference in their profiles is that Knaus is very much an extrovert, meaning he loves to talk and loves to work with a team. Johnson, meanwhile, scored as something of an introvert, which might shock anyone who has seen the natural way he is around people.

Johnson says it should not shock people; his natural inclination is to be introverted. He likes solitary activities. His wife, Chandra, says there are times he just needs to be alone. This is fine when he’s with family, but as a race car driver, his introverted ways directly clash with his hunger to, yes, be in control and make decisions. For those first few years, he and Knaus were at each other’s throats and Johnson did not fully understand why. Rick Hendrick, being the happy and dreamy BLUE person that he is, famously called them into a meeting. On the table, there was milk and cookies and Mickey Mouse plates.

“Boys,” Hendrick said, “it’s time we start talking to each other.”

That’s when Johnson finally let loose with some of his frustrations. He wanted to be heard. He wanted to feel empowered to say, “No, I don’t feel comfortable in this car. I want changes.” Knaus also let loose. He wanted Johnson to push himself harder and challenge the other drivers and race with a little bit more fury.

Both men say that the meeting was a turning point in their relationship and friendship.

And they won the next five Sprint Cup championships.

Johnson says those championships were not exactly fun. There was an overwhelming intensity every single day. Winning the first championship was so trying, and then immediately he was expected to win the second. When he won the second, then it was just presumed he would win the third. And so on. In a sport with finish lines, he never seemed to have a moment to enjoy the victories. Reporters moved on from “nice guy” “to “boring.” The old-time NASCAR fans — so many of them Dale Earnhardt supporters — lamented how corporate everything had become, often using Johnson as the prime example.

He tried not to pay attention to any of it. “But it’s hard,” he admits. “The crazy thing is I never really thought about who I wanted to be. I mean, I was just racing. I was just in love with the sport. … Then it’s like, boom, overnight, you’re in the spotlight. You see positive articles and fan response and you think, ‘Yeah, they know what I’m about.’ Then you see negative stuff, and you think, ‘You don’t even know me. Where did that come from?’

“It took me a long time to make peace with all that. I made a lot of mistakes along the way. It’s fine to say, ‘I don’t care what anyone thinks about me.’ But it takes a lot of hard work to actually get there. I look back, and I think about my mistakes. I think that I could have been a little bit more aggressive with other drivers, and I could have said what I was thinking more without worrying what people would think. But I had to grow into that.”

* * * * * *

You prefer to simply tell people what needs to be done rather than try to persuade them.

— From Jimmie Johnson’s Management By Strengths profile.

So, now Jimmie Johnson is two wins away from tying Dale Earnhardt on the all-time list, which means a lot of people are asking him questions about Earnhardt, which means Johnson has to be careful. He fully remembers the way people booed Jeff Gordon when he tied Earnhardt’s career victory mark and then threw stuff when he passed it.

“The hardcore Earnhardt fan, I’m pretty sure, isn’t a JJ fan,” he says. “I’m not going to make that person happy, period. There’s no way around it. … The thing that’s most important to me is to convey the respect I have for him and how badly I wish I could have raced against him. I was literally months away from racing him. And as a kid in motorsports, well, I don’t know a kid on the planet who didn’t want to race the No. 3 car. I was so fired up for that. And I never got the chance. That’s all I want to get across, really. I wish I could have raced against him.”

Johnson cannot believe how the numbers have piled up for him … but then, he really cannot believe that he’s turning 40 in September. Who ever sees that one coming? In some ways, he is enjoying racing now more than he ever did. He has already won four times this year, often with cars that lacked speed during the week. “We’re performing on Sundays,” he says. “And that’s a great feeling.”

And there’s a general peace in his life. He and Chandra have two young daughters, so that takes up most of attention. He is one of the most accomplished and popular drivers in the history of NASCAR, so many of those things that used to keep him up at night — constantly proving himself, keeping sponsors, winning over fans — do not trouble him now. He goes through every day with the wonderful confidence that he knows EXACTLY what he’s doing.

Also, he and Chad Knaus are more like brothers than teammates now. “It makes me laugh when people freak out because we yell at each other on the radio,” Johnson says. “We’re such good friends now that we can say anything to each other.”

Then again, there are challenges. He would like to spend more time with his family. He would like to slow down a little bit. Johnson hopes to lead a campaign to have NASCAR shorten the season from 39 races to, perhaps, 32 or 33. He understands how difficult it will be to convince NASCAR to deal with losses in revenue but he thinks it’s worth trying because: 1. He thinks NASCAR is slightly overexposed now and 2. It would give drivers of his generation, like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth, an opportunity to keep racing well into their 40s. Jeff Gordon is retiring at the end of this year, and Johnson feels sure that Gordon, who turns 44 in August, would keep racing if the schedule were a little bit more manageable.

“I’m not naive, I know it’s a tough one to pull off,” Johnson says. “But I really think there’s a strong case to make. At our level, the grind is pretty intense with all the racing and the testing and the appearances. It’s just a cause I’d like to champion.”

In the meantime, Johnson runs wild. In his hometown, he goes to where Habitat for Humanity is building four new homes for working people who could not otherwise have afforded to get homes. These four are placed next to four homes that Johnson already helped build. He hands over a cardboard check, has some photos taken, signs some autographs. Then he races over to his dealership, Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet, where he takes a tour, has some photos taken, signs some autographs. Then he goes to Torrey Pines Golf Course for a dinner where his foundation raises almost $1 million for educational programs in El Cajon, Charlotte and Chandra’s hometown of Muskogee, Okla. It’s not an atypical day.

“I won’t lie, the rest of it is becoming hard,” he says. “Those four hours of the race, and the three hours of practice, those feel the same. I still get the same thrill of being in a race car.

“I was concerned after having (older daughter) Genevieve that I might change the way I drive. I feel like in my industry when you are protecting, you are putting yourself in harm’s way. You have to stay aggressive. You have to be offensive. So I was worried a little bit about that, but fortunately I didn’t change. I still climb in a car very focused and concerned about winning races. … But now, when I’m not in the race car, I want to spend more time with them. And I know that’s going to become more and more important as they get older. That’s the hard part. It’s hard to have a life.”

* * * * * *

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“You are a hard driver.

— From Jimmie Johnson’s Management By Strengths profile

OK, here’s the Lowe’s story: When Jimmie Johnson was 25, he was called to a meeting at Hendrick Motorsports. When he got there, he found Rick Hendrick and former Lowe’s Chief Executive Officer Bob Tillman talking. They were having a good time, talking about old cars, when they suddenly went quiet. Johnson was told to take a seat. And Bob Tillman began.

“Son,” he said, with an edge in his voice, “I’ve been here all day listening to what this guy, Hendrick, has to say about this race team and how good it is.”

Johnson shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He tried to keep a straight face. At that point, he had not raced in a single Sprint Cup race. He had not won a single Busch race.

“Listen,” Tillman continued. “I’ve got a group of three hundred thousand employees that have not had a winning driver. The only reason I’m here is to know if I can have a winning team and a winning driver.”

And then he turned his glare on to Johnson. The room felt impossibly silent, as if even the room’s oxygen had stopped moving.

“So what I want to know Jimmie Johnson,” he said, “is this: Can you win a race for me?”

With that Tillman stopped talking and he looked hard at Johnson. Hendrick looked hard at Johnson. Even 15 years later, when Johnson relives the scene as he drives around his hometown, he clenches up a little bit. It was, in so many ways, the pivotal moment of his racing life. And in that moment, the RED of Jimmie Johnson’s profile pushed to the surface, and he stared right back at the CEO of Lowe’s and said with a certainty that shocked everyone: “Yes. Absolutely. I will win races for you.”

“Did you believe it?” I ask Jimmie Johnson now. He is almost 40, winner of 74 races and six Cup Championships. He has won almost $150 million in prize money. He stares at the road where he grew up, and he grabs the steering wheel a little tighter, and gives me a hard look that must be something like he gave that day. His eyes are RED.

“Yeah,” he says. “You don’t chase your dreams without believing.”