- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 27, 2007

CONCORD, N.C. It’s been almost five years since Jimmie Johnson finished lower than third at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, a streak spanning eight races five of them victories at the track he calls “my house.”

“He’s so good here, it looks like it’s fixed,” car owner Rick Hendrick said yesterday.

All that success has irritated fans, who will undoubtedly boo Johnson if he finds his way to the winner’s circle in tonight’s Coca-Cola 600.

But the defending Nextel Cup champion is used to it, and doesn’t spend a minute fretting about his spot in the sport.

Johnson knows he’ll never be the most popular driver, or the sport’s biggest star. He gladly defers to Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart for those roles.

Known by many as the nicest guy in NASCAR, Johnson is content flying under the radar off the track so long as he’s racking up the wins on it.

“I’ve never had that witty personality like Tony, you put him on the spot, wham, he’s got a response,” Johnson said. “Junior, he’s the same way. In a personal setting, he’s not as outgoing and he’s more reserved, but in the public persona, he’s God. And Jeff, he’s the veteran, with four championships he can say or do anything he wants.

“But me? I just go out there and try to do my best, do my job, and let the results speak for themselves. I have never been that ‘Rah-Rah, look at me’ kind of guy. I am just me.”

And who Johnson is has been wildly misinterpreted in the court of public opinion.

Perceived by many to be a spoiled California kid, Johnson has had to fight for acceptance from fans who want their heroes to be blue collar. They want their favorite driver to be just like them.

Because Johnson seemed to pop up out of nowhere he was signed by Hendrick in 2001 after a nondescript Busch Series career and had instant success with one of NASCAR’s super teams, many believe he’s had everything handed to him.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Johnson grew up in gritty El Cajon, Calif., where his father was a heavy equipment operator and his mother drove a school bus to make ends meet. For fun, the family piled into an old van and headed into the desert to ride dirt bikes and camp around the fire.

Those early years convinced Johnson he wanted to be in racing, but without the means to fund his career, he had to figure out a way to market himself to investors.

“I needed to do all the things your parents tell you to do: Be on time, be well dressed, don’t say the wrong thing,” he said. “I had to do all those things and be in all the right places. That’s the only tool I had to get ahead.”

Johnson became a master in selling himself, and used his boy-next-door charm to move up the racing chain. But it was only 10 years ago he was at the Daytona 500, bunking on a couch in Ron Hornaday’s rented condo, showing up at any event he could in a desperate attempt to get a top NASCAR owner to notice him.

“I went to this Chevrolet function one night and I remember, I was the first one there and I had my shirt all tucked in and my shoes were all clean. I looked as good as I could look,” he said. “And I just stood there waiting for Richard Childress to walk in, waiting for Rick Hendrick to walk in. I remember when they did, I scoped them out and was waiting for the right time, when they weren’t speaking to someone, so I could approach them.

“I’d give business cards and write letters to these guys. That’s all I had and I used it to the best of my ability.”

It’s made Johnson a corporate dream, and his 27 career victories haven’t hurt, either. He heads into tonight’s race with a series-best four victories this season and is second in the points behind Gordon, his teammate. Johnson will start 21st.

Despite all that success, Johnson has never been able to break free from the squeaky-clean image he’s perfected. It doesn’t mean there’s not another side to him, though.

At his core, Johnson is as fun as Junior and can party with the best of them. He just doesn’t ever let it show at the race track.

“He’s probably the most fun loving guy to be around,” Hendrick said. “He has fun on the golf course, he goes to the lake. When it’s time to party and play, he can do it with the best of them. But when he walks into that track, he takes his job serious and spends every minute trying to figure out how to get better.”

It’s part of the reason he wasn’t completely forthcoming about how he broke his wrist during a December golf tournament. He initially said he fell out of a golf cart, then later admitted he was actually horsing around on top of the cart when he fell off of it.

“I think he was embarrassed he hurt himself,” Hendrick said.

The incident humanized Johnson, who is reminded by his wife how regular he is every time he forgets to put his dirty dishes in the dishwasher.

“Man, that drives her nuts,” he said. “I just got a fresh lecture about that this morning.”

But Johnson knows he’ll never be accepted by everyone in NASCAR. And that’s OK with him.

“I am more comfortable than I can ever remember being at any other point in my career,” he said. “I think my biggest crime would be if I got too concerned with what other people think and start being someone other than myself. It might take some time for people to figure me out, but at least I’ll be true to myself.”

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