By Lars Anderson
It all began on a rock in the dark: the NASCAR championships (six so far), the wins (69 and counting), the firsts (first NASCAR driver to be named AP's Male Athlete of the Year, first NASCAR driver to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated twice, first driver to win five straight Cup titles). It all can be traced back to one pitch-black night in Mexico. It was the hour that Jimmie Johnson, the greatest living American racecar driver, should have died.
The year was 1994, and Johnson was 19. For nine straight hours, he had been driving a full-sized Chevy pickup on the Baja California peninsula in the Baja 1000, the mother of all off-road endurance races. It was around 3 a.m. when Johnson, leading the race, sailed at 110 mph across a smooth, straight stretch of sand near San Javier, Mexico. He'd been manhandling curves and rocks and ridges for miles and miles, and now he was on a pillow-soft surface. It suddenly felt like a lullaby being cooed into his ear and, for an instant, he closed his eyes. He nodded off. By the time he jolted awake, Johnson had missed a turn and driven over a 30-foot cliff, and was now tumbling end-over-end into a ravine.
He was a goner, destined to become past tense. Johnson was certain of it. The truck flipped once, twice, three times. The world was spinning. All four tires exploded. The roll cage ripped off. When the truck came to a stop in a bed of rocks, it looked like it had been mashed by a junkyard compactor -- a piece of twisted metal that was more abstract art than racecar. But Johnson never lost consciousness and, incredibly, suffered no significant injuries. He wiggled himself free of the cockpit and stumbled over to a rock. For almost a full day, with no one knowing where he was, Johnson sat and stared at the smoking wreckage -- thinking, thinking, thinking.
Sitting in the drizzling rain in the early-morning darkness, he realized he'd become too reckless behind the wheel. From this moment forward, he would be more conservative and protect his equipment like it was a fifth limb. As the first red-orange streaks of sunlight shot across the morning horizon, he replayed all the mistakes he'd made in his career -- the overly aggressive moves that led to wrecks, the carelessness on pit road, the mindless feuds he'd had with other drivers. Those missteps and miscalculations were in the past, he told himself. As a Mexican family wandered by with a few mules in the afternoon -- they looked at Johnson like he'd just crawled out of a spaceship -- he sat on the rock and pondered what he should do next in his life. Perhaps he'd give NASCAR a try and move from his home in El Cajon, Calif., to Charlotte, the hub of stock car racing. When night fell, he nibbled on a granola bar and told himself that from now on he would race with his head, not a heavy right foot -- that is, if anyone would come and rescue him from this dark ravine in the desert.
Finally, 20 hours after Johnson climbed out of the car that could have been his coffin, a helicopter spotted him. These 20 hours changed his life -- and ultimately changed the course of American motorsports history. "I realized that night in the desert that I needed to be smarter," Johnson said. "I still needed to push the car, but also I needed to bring it home clean. I needed to find that balance, and I began to find it that night in Mexico."
* * *
Last Sunday afternoon in the Irish Hills of Michigan, Jimmie Johnson was triumphantly raising his arms in Victory Lane at Michigan International Speedway. It was Johnson's third win in the last four races in the Sprint Cup series, which has caused a here-we-go-again vibe to fall over the NASCAR garage. The circuit moves this weekend to Sonoma and the winding road course in California wine country. Fifteen races into the 2014 season, Johnson, the reigning Cup champion, is once again the driver to beat for the title. This storyline in NASCAR is now a decade old.
The numbers are staggering. Since 2004, Johnson has 63 wins -- more than every other champion over that span combined. (Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch have 59 total victories between them.) What's more, Johnson just makes it look just so damn easy, like his No. 48 Chevy has an extra gear that no other car on the track possesses, racking up top-five finishes in 45.3 percent of his last 400 starts. This is a Yankees-of-the-'50s and Celtics-of-the-'60s kind of dominance.
But here's what scary for everyone else in NASCAR -- and especially frustrating for top-flight drivers such as Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth, who in virtually any other era would have multiple titles by now -- at age 38, Johnson is still in his full-throttled racing prime. He's no longer gun-shy about voicing his overarching goal of winning 10 career championships. If he succeeds, he would zoom past Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty -- who each won a record seven Cup titles -- in the record book. Thing is -- and this is what drivers will tell you when they are free to roam in that world of honesty known as "not for attribution" -- it certainly appears that it's only a matter of time before Johnson collects 10 titles, and perhaps more than that.
"Jimmie is the best there's ever been in this sport," says one former champion. "He has it all: He's smart, he's patient, he doesn't make mistakes and he's got a hell of crew chief in Chad Knaus and he's got the best owner in the business in Rick Hendrick. It's a perfect storm. S--t, it wouldn't surprise me if he wins 12 titles. We are in the midst of something that will never happen again in our sport. There is so much more competition now than there was when Petty and Earnhardt won their championships, and yet Jimmie just cruises along. I'm out of words to describe him."
Adds another former champion, "Put it this way: The only way Jimmie won't win 10 is if he gets bored and loses his edge or he gets hurt. Otherwise, it's almost like we're all just watching him. I can't tell you how f---ing frustrating that is."
* * *
Jimmie Johnson's success has not been good business for NASCAR. Since 2004, the peak of the sport's popularity boom that was triggered at least in part by the death of Dale Earnhardt on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, TV ratings are down almost 50 percent. Attendance has declined steadily for a decade. Tracks such as Daytona, Michigan and Talladega have removed seats, while venues at Charlotte, Dover, Martinsville, Richmond and Phoenix all cover portions of seats with signage.
A popular theory in the garage holds that the Johnson dynasty has driven fans away. It's not only that he wins so much, which has sucked the drama out of the series; it's also that blue-collar fans, the sport's bedrock, simply can't see themselves in Johnson, who is the most camera-friendly and well-spoken driver in NASCAR. The diehard, dirt-under-their-fingernails NASCAR crowd has never embraced Johnson as one of their own. After all, he's married to a former fashion model (they have two young daughters), he keeps an apartment in downtown New York City, he has a mansion in Charlotte and he owns a Lear jet. Dale Earnhardt used to be out working on his farm before dawn; Johnson gets up that early to train for Ironman competitions. An Earnhardt, Johnson ain't.
But here is the often-ignored fact about Johnson: He comes from a background as hardscrabble as any driver in the sport today. Jimmie and his younger brothers, Jarit and Jesse, were raised in a two-bedroom house in El Cajon, located in the foothills of the Laguna Mountains, 15 miles east of San Diego. For 15 years, five days a week, Jimmie's father, Gary, rose at 4 a.m. and drove a truck for B.F. Goodrich. His mother, Cathy, drove a school bus. The Hell's Angels frequently rode their bikes through El Cajon, and the sight and sounds of the bikes held little Jimmie's eyes like nothing else. On Christmas Day in 1976, Gary gave his oldest boy a motorized bike that he'd built with scavenged parts, even attaching training wheels to the bike. It had a top speed of 10 mph. Father and mother watched as Jimmie took off for the first time in the driveway. And so it began.
"I quit caring what people think about me a long time ago," said Johnson, who took a Dale Carnegie course early in his career and now talks like he's an Ivy League graduate even though he never finished a year of college. "I stopped trying to tell people about my background. It used to bother me a lot, but I've out-grown that."
* * *
So what makes Johnson so good? NASCAR is not like football, where a quarterback's arm strength can be quantified and a running back's speed easily measured. And Johnson is not like Dale Earnhardt, a classic banger who would knock another driver into the wall if the spirit moved him. Nor is he like Jeff Gordon, who -- in his title-winning years in the 1990s -- flashed off-the-charts anticipation and video-game car control. In fact, Johnson's signature talent can't be witnessed from the stands: He has what sports psychologists call "a problem-solving mind."
When Johnson senses something is wrong with his car, he can visualize, in three dimensions, its inner organs. While many drivers will simply tell their crew chief that their car is "too tight" (meaning its front tires lose traction through the turns) or "too loose" (meaning the back wheels slide through the turns as if on ice), Johnson will diagnose the problem from the cockpit and, using his expansive vocabulary, offer a detailed prescriptive fix to his crew chief Chad Knaus. This isn't a particularly sexy skill in motorsports, but if there's one core reason behind Johnson's success, this is it. Johnson's robotic and ruthless precision (lap after lap after lap) and his decision-making (inspired by those white-light realizations in the desert) have been the fuel for his decade of dominance.
"Jimmie is as tuned in to what's going on with his car as any driver there is," says Darrell Waltrip, a three-time Cup champion. "Plus, he rarely makes mistakes on the track, and it's like he intuitively knows exactly how hard he can push his car without crashing it. He can find that edge of speed that you need in the sport and he can live on that edge without losing control. It's just remarkable."
Unlike most drivers, Johnson almost always lifts off the throttle rather than put the nose of his No. 48 car in a precarious position. This is why he rarely crashes. It's also why he has so many friends on the track. This is another of Johnson's secrets: He doesn't have a single enemy in the garage. As a result, he's never been purposefully wrecked in the Chase. "Jimmie gets along with everyone because he's so damn nice, and I swear he doesn't get pissed off about anything," says Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnson's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports. "We all want to beat him, but he's earned respect, so everyone knows you have to beat him in a respectful way. And trust me, it's not like we're rolling over for the guy. Everyone for years has been trying their hardest to beat that dude."
* * *
With three wins so far in 2014, Johnson already is locked into the 10-race Chase, which begins Sept. 14 at Chicagoland Speedway. Even now, Hendrick Motorsports -- which boasts 550 employees and has the largest budget in NASCAR -- is preparing for the playoffs. Johnson and Knaus soon will unveil a new fleet of cars equipped with the latest and greatest technology in the sport. The beat goes on for the No. 48 team.
There isn't a single track in the Chase in which Johnson and Knaus don't flourish. Not one. That's been another key to their championship binge. It's only June, but in the world of NASCAR, 2014 is already looking a lot like 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2013. As in all those years, one simple question looms over the sport:
Can anyone beat Jimmie?
* * *
Lars Anderson is a 20-year veteran of Sports Illustrated and the author of six books, including The Storm and the Tide, which will be published in August. He's currently an instructor of journalism at the University of Alabama.