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Jimmie Steps Out
LARS ANDERSON
November 24, 2008
NASCAR's best driver on the track, sports' next celebrity on the street: the two sides of Cup champ Jimmie Johnson
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November 24, 2008

Jimmie Steps Out

NASCAR's best driver on the track, sports' next celebrity on the street: the two sides of Cup champ Jimmie Johnson

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FEROCIOUSLY FOCUSED and as creative as he is analytical, the 37-year-old Knaus has been as vital to the establishment of this stock car dynasty as the driver, and the crew chief's most impressive work came this season. After the team had an uncharacteristically sluggish start—the low point coming at Las Vegas last March 2, when Jimmie finished 29th and was turning laps a full two seconds slower than race winner Edwards—Knaus put his crew on a grueling work schedule to find ways to catch up. Nearly every week for three months they would travel around the country to tracks not on the Cup circuit and conduct test sessions to find additional speed. Knaus would place data acquisition devices at several points on the car—think multiple monitors in an intensive-care unit—and after Jimmie ran different lines around the track, Knaus would carefully analyze the measurements. Tire temperature, traction, shock absorber performance....

Knaus's diligence quickly paid off with a win at Phoenix on April 12. More important, while other top drivers were peaking early in the season—most notably Kyle Busch, who won eight of the first 22 races—Jimmie was coming on as the Chase approached. Everyone else in the garage knew they were in trouble when the 48 Chevy won the final two races of the regular season.

"The way you win championships in the Chase era is to use the first 26 races to get ready for the last 10, and Jimmie and Chad do that better than anyone else," says Darrell Waltrip, the three-time Cup winner who now calls the races for Fox. "They have as much engineering support at Hendrick Motorsports as anyone in the sport. Heck, I don't see why they can't win a fourth straight championship next season."

WHEN THE Denali pulls up at Jungle Island, for the BeLive 2008 Charity Gala hosted by Cup driver Juan Pablo Montoya, the media and fans along the red carpet turn to see Jimmie and Chandra. Smiling naturally and posing for photographers, they exchange glances, touch each other lightly. Jimmie is as comfortable in the glare of celebrity as he is on the banked turns of Lowe's Motor Speedway.

He took a Dale Carnegie course early in his racing career. He doesn't say anything within a zip code of controversy. Among NASCAR beat writers he is considered boring and vanilla and robotic. "When I started racing, I didn't have much going for me, other than that I could say all the right things—almost to a fault," Jimmie says. "I can be freaking out inside, but then I open my mouth and I sound calm. I don't know where this device comes from. It helps me in racing because you never want to lose your cool, but it's also probably kept people from getting to know the real me."

Away from the track, team owner Rick Hendrick says, "nobody has more fun than Jimmie." The ultimate guy's guy, according to one of his close friends, Noah Lazes, an event planner in Charlotte, who offers this snapshot: On the morning of the AFC and NFC championship games two years ago Jimmie phoned him in Charlotte: "You want to have a man day and go see the NFL games?"

"Uh, games, plural?" responded Lazes.

"Come on," Jimmie said. "Two guys, two games, one airplane and a bottle of Goose. Let's go."

An hour later they were airborne in Jimmie's six-seat Gulfstream G450, heading from Charlotte, where the Johnsons own a 12,000-square-foot house, to Chicago for the Saints-Bears kickoff. Then they flew to Indianapolis to watch the Patriots play the Colts. "The thing you've got to realize about Jimmie is that his success has afforded him the chance to do amazing things," Lazes says. "As serious as he is at the track, he's as fun-loving away from it. I wish more people saw that side."

Hendrick saw that side a few days after the 2006 season, when Jimmie called to report that he'd just had an "accident" while playing in a charity golf tournament in Lecanto, Fla. Full of an afternoon's worth of liquid courage, Jimmie had hopped on the back of a friend's moving golf cart, climbed onto the roof (at the full-throated urging of spectators) and pretended he was surfing. The improbable target proved too tempting for players in the following group, who began hitting golf balls at Jimmie. One of the balls startled the driver of the cart; he swerved, sending the surfer tumbling onto the fairway. Jimmie split his lip and broke his left wrist.

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