The injuries didn't cause him to miss a race, but Jimmie feared he might have lost the respect of his fans and the support of his sponsor, Lowe's. (Not the case at all.) "I can be a jackass," he says. "I sometimes wish people could hear the voices in my head because there's some crazy-ass s— in my brain."
AT A quiet table in the haute-Chinese supper club Phillipe—all red, white and black lacquer in the new Gansevoort hotel on SouthBeach—Jimmie is sipping a glass of Napa Valley cabernet. Just half a glass because he has qualifying for the Ford 400 tomorrow. He puts his hand on his wife's knee and says, "My best attribute as a driver is my focus, my level of concentration, and having Chandi in my life allows me to not worry about things outside of racing when I walk through the gates each weekend. This sounds corny, but Chandi and I are teammates. We're in love, and she gives me total peace of mind."
They met in New York City in the spring of 2002. Jimmie was in town for a quick pleasure trip and was learning his way around with the help of Hendrick teammate and established Manhattanite Jeff Gordon. Chandra had just moved to the city and was working as a model for the Wilhelmina agency. They met at a party. Chandra Janway, the daughter of a chiropractor and a stay-at-home mom, was raised in Muskogee, Okla.—in high school she had a pet turkey named Malcolm ("He disappeared one November," Jimmie jokes)—and got a communications degree at the University of Oklahoma. They started dating, Jimmie rented an apartment in Manhattan, and in 2004 they were married, before 150 guests on the island of St. Bart's. Chandra retains a certain Midwest dignity. ("I don't go grocery shopping in designer clothes," she says.) "The perfect woman" is how Jimmie describes her.
Most NASCAR couples stay close to Charlotte, the hub of the sport, even in the off-season, but Jimmie and Chandra keep a loft apartment in the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea. They spend off weekends in the Hamptons, and recent vacations have included trips to Paris and Cape Town, South Africa. Beyond the racing crowd, they see friends such as Nick Lachey, Tony Hawk, Atlanta Braves pitcher Mike Hampton and former NFL player Jason Sehorn and his wife, actress Angie Harmon.
"Racing has given me the chance to do some wonderful things in my life, and Chandi and I take advantage of that," says Jimmie, who over the past year earned an estimated $23 million in winnings and endorsements. "But the bottom line is that I'm a regular guy who likes to have a good time when I'm not racing. At the end of the day, and this is the truth, I'm still just a jackass from El Cajon."
It's monday morning, the day after the season wrapped at Homestead, and Jimmie is riding in the back of another black SUV—this one carrying him through the Connecticut countryside. Chandra's back in Charlotte, and he's starting in on a round of interviews as daunting as any Chase. He has 11 television and radio shows lined up in the next few hours, and when he looks at his cellphone, he sees 111 congratulatory text messages—many from those famous friends, including Hawk, Troy Aikman and Tony Gonzalez. "They just keep coming," Jimmie says, looking at the screen. "I'll never make it through them all."