Once more, with feeling

Jimmie Johnson comes to grips with historic seventh championship

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NEW YORK — Again and again, over and over, they ask him how he FEELS. Well, this is the question to ask, isn’t it? The bus crawls through New York traffic and takes Jimmie Johnson from office building to office building. People wait inside. Kelly Live waits. Charlie Rose waits. USA Today … Mad Dog Radio … NFL Radio … TMZ. They wait for him on top of the Empire State Building. They wait for him outside the Time Life Building.

How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

How does it FEEL to come from nowhere to win your seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, Jimmie? How does it FEEL to tie the two enduring legends of your sport, “The King,” Richard Petty and “The Intimidator,” Dale Earnhardt? How does it FEEL to be the best at what you do, to be inside a race car, rushing at the speed of chaos with 39 maniacs around you barely holding on? No, really, break it down for our audience, how does it feel to be you, Jimmie Johnson, championship race-car driver, part-time triathlete, millionaire philanthropist like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark, loving husband, adoring father, everybody’s best friend and somehow, still, the nicest guy?

How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

“Insane,” he says. “It feels insane.”

“Awesome,” he says. “It feels awesome.”

“Wonderful,” he says.

“Surreal,” he says.

“Incredible,” he says.

“I don’t know that I have the words,” he says.

We’ve known each other a long time, Jimmie and I. We’ve talked about a lot of things through the years, about family and sharks, about food and dreams, faith and football, about kids and ice cream and how hard it is to not care when people boo.

“Let me ask you something,” I say as the day crawls on, and he has been asked the question two or three dozen times, and his eyes begin to close because he’s worn out. “All these people keep asking you how you feel.”

“Yeah,” he says. “Part of the job.”

“I know,” I tell him. “But if you keep talking about how it feels, how do you keep anything for yourself?”

He smiles at that and shrugs and looks out the window of the bus.

* * *

There is a giant hill near the small house where Johnson grew up. People tend to know he grew up around San Diego and so they might think about the sun and the beach, colorful sailboats and yachts. He gives off the impression of royalty. But that’s not the San Diego where he grew up. His town was called El Cajon. There are no yachts in El Cajon. His father operated heavy machinery. His mother drove a school bus. They made do. Jimmie would escape down that hill on his bicycle.

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That hill — El Cajon mountain — is a road that seems to go straight down. Even in a car, it is a bit daunting. And for the young Jimmie Johnson it held all the secrets worth knowing. He would rush too fast down that hill, then faster, then faster still, until his parents would tell him to chill, and his friends would nervously call him crazy. Then he went faster again. At that speed, he found that he could feel everything. Fear. Breathlessness. Joy. Hope. Love. Pain. Oh, sure, there was always some pain. There was always another crash. Jimmie Johnson was the kid who showed up for just about every class photo wearing a cast or leaning on crutches.

Well, he couldn’t help it. He needed that speed. He needed to race. There was something about being on the edge — barely in control and barely out of control — that called to him. He would do ANYTHING for that feeling because being on that edge was the thing that made him feel most alive. As the years went on, he realized that to get that edge, he needed to make connections. So he made connections. He realized that to get to that edge he needed to know people. So he met people — the Herzogs, the Chevy people, Jeff Gordon, Rick Hendrick, the people who could help him get where he so needed to go.

He is just one of those people who cannot leave his fears alone. He needed to explore the fears, dance around them, poke at them if he can. It’s still true. Even after he made his name as a race-car driver and could do more or less anything he wanted, he still spent a vacation diving into the water so he could be thisclose to sharks. Why would a sane person do that?

“Because I’m absolutely terrified of sharks,” he says, as if that explains it.

* * *

Richard Petty. Dale Earnhardt. Jimmie Johnson. It does boggle Johnson’s mind that he’s now in that company, officially and inarguably, one of NASCAR’s holy trinity to win seven championships. People can argue who is, in fact, the greatest of all time — and there will be those who believe it isn’t ANY of the three but instead is an Allison or a Gordon or a Richmond or someone like that. Johnson doesn’t care. He’s so happy to be in the discussion.

Johnson never did race against Petty or Earnhardt, though he raced plenty against their sons. He did meet the legends. Well, he has met Richard Petty quite a few times, but he doesn’t really have any good stories about it. “What can you say about him that hasn’t been said a million times?” Johnson says. “He’s the King. He treats everyone with respect. He’s our greatest champion. He’s always been very nice to me, but he’s nice to everyone, you know? I don’t really know that I have more to add than that.”

Johnson does have good stories, though, about the two times he met Dale Earnhardt.

As part of Johnson’s effort to know people, he became friends with Ron Hornaday Jr., a four-time World Truck Series Champion, and a friend of Earnhardt’s. And one day, Hornaday sees Johnson and says, “Hey, you want to meet Earnhardt?” And of course Johnson says yes because Earnhardt was a legend by then. “People my age,” he says, “there was no one on earth cooler than Dale Earnhardt.”

They walk in together, and Hornaday introduces Johnson. Earnhardt sizes up the kid; Johnson was 21 years old then. And then Earnhadt reaches for a little box and gives it to Johnson. “Here,” he says with no warning or explanation. Inside is a little pocket knife with Dale Earnhardt’s name on it. Johnson is overwhelmed.

“OK,” Earnhardt says. “So what did you get me?”

Johnson kind of stumbles around. “Um,” he says, “I didn’t know …”

Earnhardt growls, “You know it’s YEARS of bad luck if you give somebody a knife and then don’t get a gift in return.”

Johnson begins to turn red, “I mean …”

Earnhardt goes on: “I don’t need your bad luck. I still haven’t won Daytona. I give you a knife and you don’t have anything for me, and now you’re telling me I have to walk around with your bad luck …”

Johnson panics. He rushes outside and, using all the ingenuity he could muster up, gets a penny. He goes in and gives it to Earnhardt saying, “It’s a heads-up penny for good luck.”

Earnhardt doesn’t say a word.

“You know,” Johnson says now, almost 20 years later, “I wonder if he was messing with me.”

* * *

Did you see Johnson going crazy?  In the minutes after Johnson won that race at Homestead on Nov. 20, the one that clinched the seventh championship, he lost his mind. He danced. He jumped around. He hugged everyone and everything in his path. He screamed — screamed so loud and with such force that even days later he did not have his voice back.  He had won six championships before this one, and he celebrated those heartily, too. But this was different. This was unchained. This was Spinal Tap’s eleven.

“I don’t even know who that guy was,” Johnson says as he looks at footage of himself going bananas.

Shock, of course, had something to do with it. Johnson went into Sunday’s race needing to finish ahead of three drivers — Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch — to win the seventh championship. And all race long, he could not beat any of the three. They all had better cars. They all had better track position. Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, had tinkered and gambled and even tried making a few rather desperate changes, but none of it mattered. Johnson just didn’t have enough car. Those three guys pulled away, and Johnson was left sitting in his car thinking of ways to be gracious when the inevitable loss happened. “I knew I wasn’t going to win,” he says. “I accepted it.”

(All the while, his wife, Chandra, was a mess. Chandra is famous around the track for her relatively serene approach to watching Jimmie race. On Sunday, she admitted, she was in the fetal position).

And then in the final 10 laps of the race, suddenly, a whole series of wacky things happened. Carl Edwards was in command of the championship when the caution flag came out. Poor Carl Edwards. He’s had a glorious NASCAR career, winning 28 races and more than $80 million in prize money, but something has always blocked him from being THE GUY. There was the time he tied Tony Stewart and lost the tiebreaker. There was the year he won nine races, including the last one, but fell short on points. And then there was this one, the time when he had the championship in his hand but a caution flag came out with 10 laps to go and it all went to hell.

Edwards restarted on the front row, and he had Joey Logano behind him. Jimmie Johnson was behind Logano. And for the first time all day, Johnson thought: “Well, hey, maybe there’s a chance.”

Logano, as is his style, made a bold move inside to try and beat Edwards on the restart — nobody in NASCAR restarts quite as aggressively and forcefully as Logano. He went so far inside that his car rolled over the painted area near the interior wall. And it was a winning move — his move would trap Edwards between cars, and there’s no escaping that spot. Edwards knew it, knew his race was over if he let Logano by, and so, in a desperate effort to block Logano, he swerved left. “I was a bit optimistic,” Edwards said ruefully afterward. He bumped Logano, and then lost control, leading to a fiery wreck that ended Edwards’ hopes and shut the race down for 30 minutes.

“As soon as I got by that wreck,” Johnson said, “I thought, ‘Wait a minute. What’s happening here? I might actually win this.'”

Well, that was certainly the thought in the Johnson camp, where Knaus was pumping his fist and Chandra was losing her mind and so on. During that 30-minute, red-flag delay, Johnson’s crew, his fans, and the many people around NASCAR hoping to see a bit of history were going out of their minds. It was going to happen! Jimmie Johnson! Seven championships! Impossible!

And, inside the car, Johnson fell asleep

“I guess I was calm,” he says, and even now he’s surprised.

There was one more break to come Johnson’s way — he expected to be lined up in the third position, which would have been him on the inside lane with his championship competitor Kyle Busch on the outside. If there was one thing that was clear all day in Miami it was this: You did NOT want to be in the inside lane. That was the lane where Carl Edwards AND Joey Logano saw their dreams end. “You just can’t hold your speed on the inside at Miami,” Johnson says.

But, NASCAR determined that Busch, not Johnson, should be in the third spot. Johnson broke free from Busch on the restart and took the lead.

* * *

There’s an irony about NASCAR: It is the ultimate thrill ride — 200 mph on sheet metal and horsepower and all that’s left of your tires — but you don’t get to NASCAR and you don’t win championships through daredevil feats. You get to NASCAR through great racing, yes, but also by building relationships, by impressing sponsors, by pitching the Lowe’s-Budweiser-M&M’s-FedEx-Napa Parts-Chevrolet-Toyota-Ford car and by working within a team. You win championships by driving like the devil when your car is loose and seems to be on a sheet of black ice, yes, but also by understanding what you don’t know and trusting your crew to handle things. You win championships by controlling your car, but also by relinquishing control. It’s the shakiest of balances.

And balance is what Johnson does better than anyone in the sport.

So when everyone asks Johnson how he feels after the seventh championship, well, he tries his best, he uses the balanced words that come closest, but really, in a private moment, he will tell you: He doesn’t really know HOW he feels. It’s all too much to take in.

“All my life,” he says, “I just wanted to race cars. It was never about the numbers. I didn’t want to win seven championships. I didn’t really want to win one championship. I mean, yeah, I wanted to win, but what I really wanted was to drive a race car.”

Before this race, he said the thing he wanted was to feel like he did when he was a kid, to strip away all the money and all the fame and all the past glory and just feel that thing he used to stay up all night dreaming about, that thing that pushed him to go down El Cajon Mountain just a little bit faster than felt right.

Did he?

“When people ask me how I feel,” he says, “I tell them best I can. I want people to share in this feeling i have. … But I don’t tell them everything.”

* * *

The second time Johnson met Dale Earnhardt, well, it’s a much shorter story. Johnson was hanging around with some buddies at Earnhardt’s garage when they all saw The Intimidator’s car roll slowly by with its windows pulled up. Suddenly the car stopped, and it backed up, and the window came down.

“Hey,” Earnhardt said to Johnson. “You work for me?”

“No sir.”

“Then get the hell out of here. I don’t need no lawsuits.”

And the window rolled back up and Dale Earnhardt drove away.

At the end of that magical race at Homestead, there was one final restart, and after that Johnson heard “Clear” from his spotter, meaning the race and that seventh championship was his. Then came the disbelief and the crazy dancing and screaming and joy and hugs from his wife and children and the greatest compliment a driver could ever get.

“Jimmie,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. would say to his friend as he pulled Johnson close, “Dad would think you’re such a badass.”