In the Fast Lane with Jimmie Johnson

Jimmie Johnson may be like Jeff Lynne of ELO with his shades - his quest for excellence keeps him driven, just like the musician. (Photo Credit: Josh Jones/TPF)

Jimmie Johnson may be like Jeff Lynne of ELO with his shades.  In fact, his quest for excellence keeps him driven just like the musician. (Photo Credit: Josh Jones/TPF)

Simply put, when it comes to a driver that redefines excellence in NASCAR, all signs point to Jimmie Johnson.  After all, the native of El Cajon, CA has rewritten the record books since his rookie season in 2002.

Still, throughout the majority of Johnson’s career, he’s been a polarizing figure.  There are those who are enthusiastic and thrilled with his tremendous success.  With 83 Cup Series wins and seven championships, it’s likely that Johnson will earn a spot in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

On the other hand, there are those who point to Johnson’s success to the playoff format.  Regardless, a driver of his caliber finds way to succeed in about any aerodynamic package, points format, and rules format.

All told, even a driver with a meteoric rise to fame and glory experiences a season with adversities and challenges.  Like any legendary icons such as Tom Brady or Larry Bird, there’s no doubt that Johnson will persevere through difficult times.

Moreover, Johnson’s got a great support system.  Certainly he can turn to his family, including his wife Chandra and his daughters Genevieve and Lydia.  By all means, through the good and tough times, he can turn to them for encouragement and strength.

Similarly, Johnson races for Rick Hendrick, one of the most passionate and driven car owners in NASCAR.  By the same token, crew chief Chad Knaus keeps this racer even keeled and with cooler heads prevailing more times than not.

Recently, I spoke with Johnson during the Consumers Energy 400 race weekend.  At great length, we went over his career, his season to date, and his favorite music, among other topics.  All things considered, he is hardly a man that’s been described as “too vanilla.”

Fire up the No. 48 Lowe’s for Pros Chevrolet Camaro, because we’re going “In the Fast Lane with Jimmie Johnson!”

Rob Tiongson :  We’ve seen some speed from the Hendrick quartet recently with Chase Elliott’s win at Watkins Glen. Would you attribute the recent progress for your team and your teammates getting more comfortable with Chevy Camaro or the entire Hendrick organization improving on certain components with the overall package?

By and large, Johnson remains confident in his No. 48 team despite the challenges of the new Chevy Camaro. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson/TPF)

By and large, Johnson remains confident in his No. 48 team despite the challenges of the new Chevy Camaro. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson/TPF)

Jimmie Johnson :  From a comfort standpoint, we’ve been comfortable with it.  We just haven’t had the raw speed.  It’s hard to put blame in just one area.

As the year’s gone on, we’ve improved our engines, we’ve improved our aero, we’ve improved mechanical grip, race strategy – a lot of different things.  We have been comfortable, but it’s just been the evolution of Hendrick Motorsports over the course of the year that’s really put us where we’re at.

Tiongson :  You’ve excelled throughout your career as one of the young guns when you started full-time in 2002 to a seven-time Cup champion to this day.  How would you say you’ve evolved as a driver from an individual standpoint and a team aspect with Hendrick Motorsports?

Johnson :  I’ve definitely evolved.  I can remember back at one point just being so worried about my very limited existence and vantage point of the 48 to the 48 really being a race winning team to a championship winning team.

Certainly, once you start winning championships, there’s a responsibility for the organization for the sport that you start to see and understand how you can help the industry.  As the championships go by, that space continues to grow.  Now, I’m in a position where I have three very young teammates and I get to mentor and coach them.

I really do enjoy it.  I’ve always had mentors along the way.  I enjoy it when those guys ask questions and I can help them.

Tiongson :  It truly seems like there’s a sense of family at Hendrick.  In fact, your teammates Chase Elliott, William Byron, and Alex Bowman teasingly call you their racing dad.  Do you sometimes think, “Well, I’ll get back at them” or is it an honor to be that person?

Johnson :  It’s more of an honor.  They’re great guys and super talented behind the wheel.  I really do enjoy my friendship and relationship with those guys.  If you can’t make fun of each other, you shouldn’t be in the sports.  So, I appreciate the respect and harassment they give me. (chuckles)

Tiongson :  During various points of your career, some fans perceived you as being “too vanilla.”  With the advent of social media over the years, would you say it’s dispelled that stereotype about you and has it allowed people to know you a little bit better?

All in all, Johnson appreciates social media as a way to show his more human, personable side. (Photo Credit: Josh Jones/TPF)

All in all, Johnson appreciates social media as a way to show his more human, personable side. (Photo Credit: Josh Jones/TPF)

Johnson :  I totally agree with that.  Social has been helpful on that front.  I’m just one who’s taken his job very seriously and it’s impossible to make everybody happy or to let everybody truly see who you are and what you’re about.

In the limited lens of watching races and trying to get to know somebody off interviews and their workspace is a tough environment.  So, social has been very helpful on that front to me.

Tiongson :  In recent years, you’ve been able to share your experiences in NASCAR with your family.  Compared to when your early years in NASCAR to where you are today, has it been more enjoyable to race with your family around?

Johnson :  It definitely has.  I think that everybody has some relational aspect of life that it’s more fun to share life and things with others.  To start as a single guy, get married, and now have my two daughters and share these experiences with them – it’s not just the good, but it’s also the tough times, you learn from that.  It makes it all more meaningful along the way.

Tiongson :  It was neat how you shared some of your favorite songs on Spotify along with your Hendrick teammates.  I was surprised to see you like Nirvana!  So, was it cool to share your music taste and do you pump yourself up with your music?

Notably, Johnson's taste ranges from grunge to chill indie rock. (Photo Credit: Josh Jones/TPF)

Notably, Johnson’s taste ranges from grunge to chill indie rock. (Photo Credit: Josh Jones/TPF)

Johnson :  Yea, I pump myself up with the music.  I enjoy music.  I don’t necessarily dive into emerging bands and find the up and coming folks.  My wife is super good at that, so I feel like I have that coming in.

I just can’t help but think of the music when I was younger and the road trips with my parents that I’d listen to.  Then, my own early days and having my license and the music that I’d put on – I’d buy a cassette tape back then and pop it in.  Now, obviously, we’ve got DVD.

But that whole era of time, the grunge music, like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and Metallica, that was just my staple with all my buddies.  That was just what we listened to.

When I was asked to make the list, it was tough to figure out what direction to go in.  I just went through my library and just found some key songs that I thought were really cool and I listened to a lot over the years growing up.

Tiongson :  Have you teased some of your teammates or former teammates like Jeff Gordon about the fact that he listens to Maroon 5 and a lot of younger people music?

Johnson :  You know what, I haven’t seen their list.  I probably should.  I’ll take any chance I can get to harass those guys. (laughs)

Tiongson :  You raced Brendan Gaughan throughout your career starting back when you were both kids.  Is it true that you used to sign each other’s autographs back then?  Do you still do some high jinxes like that to this day?

Johnson :  We got into a lot of trouble growing up. (laughs) We’re very similar in age.  Our parents worked in the industry and they were in the racing side.  My dad worked for the tire company and for race teams.  Our families loved racing and loved off road racing.

In that small industry, traveling through the stadium racing in the winters and desert racing in the summers, there was only so many kids around that were there week after week.  Brendan was one and I was the other.  Casey Mears would be another to lump into that list as well.

We had a lot of fun, and then once we were teens, it turned into more fun/trouble. (laughs) We just had a lot of good years for sure.  We did mess around with each other’s autographs.

It’s hard to believe but back then, Brendan was pretty skinny! (laughter) We looked more like brothers back then and we could pull that off.

Tiongson :   I also want to clarify, did you teepee Casey Mears’ house after his first Cup win in 2007?

Johnson :   We teepeed his motorhome in the bus lot and then we were waiting in his house with adult beverages and were ready to let it whip. (snickers)

Tiongson :  We know you’ve got a prowess for racing stock cars, stadium trucks, and cycling.  Aside from anything with wheels, what would you consider to be your hidden talent that would surprise people?

Johnson :  Gosh, I don’t know if I’ve really had any talents.  There’s been things that I’ve been passionate about that I’ve obsessed over and found a way to be good at it.

So, from a racing standpoint, I was never a standout, but I loved it so much that I kind of developed into it and grew into it.  With cycling, I’m not the strongest, fastest guy, but I love it and I’m willing to suffer and put in the time.  (laughs) That’s kind of been my arch.

Relationships and people are important to me.  I guess there is something in that space.  When I look at childhood friends, working relationships, relationships with my peers, I think that’s something that’s more of a natural thing for me than the noticeable aspect of my life.

Tiongson :  You’ve logged 83 wins, 35 poles, and seven championships.  Your accomplishments will surely earn you a spot in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.  What’s been your motivation for constant excellence despite all that you’ve accomplished and experienced in your career?

"Of course, you’ve got to shoot for the moon and keep your goals high." - Jimmie Johnson (Photo Credit: Josh Jones/TPF)

“Of course, you’ve got to shoot for the moon and keep your goals high.” – Jimmie Johnson (Photo Credit: Josh Jones/TPF)

Johnson :  I just like challenging myself.  In my heart, I’ve always had a sense of what I think I’m capable of and I feel like those have been realistic goals.  Of course, you’ve got to shoot for the moon and keep your goals high.

There’s just some experience in competing in racing and being on track, regardless of the vehicles, if it was the two wheels growing up, or the four wheels now, there’s just that space that I enjoy.  I guess that part isn’t fulfilled or satisfied yet.

Some day when it is, I’ll stop racing.  That desire is still there now, and I really enjoy competing and being out there.

Editor’s Notes

Special thanks to Jimmie Johnson and Amy Walsh of Hendrick Motorsports for this great opportunity during the August race weekend at Michigan.  If you’d like to keep up-to-date on Jimmie, aside from our content on TPF, “Like” his Facebook page, “Follow” him on Twitter, and “Visit” his official website now!

Rob Tiongson

30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field, and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught my eye. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by me or by one of my talented columnists who absolutely have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. I enjoy editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography.

Graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication. Proud to be from Massachusetts, just as happy to be a Texan.

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2 Comments

  1. mhumphrey@nascar.com'

    Matt Humphrey

    August 21, 2018 at 12:28 pm

    Rob, you keep bringing the heat with some great interviews. This one was quality from top to bottom.

    Thanks for sharing.

    • Rob Tiongson

      August 21, 2018 at 8:16 pm

      Thank you, Matt! That means a lot to me. I’ve got to credit my team too. It was fun to have one of our first true homegrown content, start to finish. More coming from the weekend that was at Michigan!

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