Jimmie Johnson was feeling good. It was last January in Florida, and he had just begun the 56-mile biking portion of a triathlon — a race that requires competitors to swim, bike, then run — toward the front of the pack. Then Johnson, a racecar driver who more or less makes his living taking left turns, missed (of all things) a left turn. "I came to a very busy intersection," recalls Johnson. "There were police officers everywhere. I guess I didn't see the arrows. I didn't hear anybody say turn. I just rode right through the intersection."
A handful of hapless riders actually followed Johnson. One mile down the road, he realized his mistake and turned around. "Of course I had some frustration and anger," says Johnson, who started cross-training with triathlons three years ago. "But then it reminded me of my day job of driving the race car. Nothing goes smoothly in a race. There's an issue with another driver, a mistake I made, a mistake from a pit stop. Stuff happens. I was like, Wait a second. I live with this environment every day of my life."
Instead of completing the required 70.3 miles, Johnson traveled a total of 72.3 — and still managed to come in second in his age group and 15th overall. "I kinda just got back into my zone and kept plugging along," he says.
Jimmie Johnson's zone is a pretty good place to be. Few 21st-century athletes have been as dominant as the 40-year-old driver for Hendrick Motorsports, who has won six NASCAR titles since 2005. He will attempt to secure a record-tying seventh this fall. And if he does? "We're going to work really, really hard to get the next one so we can beat it," says his crew chief, Chad Knaus.
Knaus and Johnson wouldn't be in the position they are today if it weren't for a discussion that took place 10 years ago over milk and cookies sitting on Mickey Mouse plates.
After only three years on lower-level circuits, Johnson made his debut in NASCAR's top division in 2001, racing the number 48 car. Over the next three seasons, he finished fifth and then in second place twice with Knaus as his crew chief (the teammate who is in charge of the technical aspects of the race and who constantly communicates directly with the driver through a radio).
That fourth season, many expected the 48 team to win it all, but Johnson finished fifth. He and Knaus were arguing a lot. Team owner Rick Hendrick knew if the two couldn't work together, they were never going to win a title. "Mr. Hendrick saw what a good thing it was that we had and what we were building, and he also saw the frustration we were experiencing," says Knaus.
So what did Hendrick do? He got them in a room and threw those Mickey Mouse plates down on a table, telling the teammates that if they weren't going to act like adults, he wasn't going to treat them like adults. They talked about how to fix the communication problems they were having. And guess what? The strategy worked. Knaus and Johnson's relationship started clicking. The next year they began a run of five straight titles, using their personality differences to their advantage.
"He's very intense, very structured," says Johnson of Knaus. "I'm much more laid back and relaxed. We have a very similar work ethic in our desire to be successful — we just go about it in completely different ways."
Knaus characterizes their differences in much the same way and knows that Johnson's nature is part of what makes him such a good driver. "He doesn't lose his cool when things start to get sideways," says Knaus. "If he gets into a tussle with someone else on the track, it doesn't stick with him too long. He's able to block all that stuff out and focus on the racing."
THE NEED FOR SPEED
Ever since he first raced a motorcycle, at age five, Johnson has been fascinated with what makes things travel fast. Science was one of his stronger subjects — most of the time.
Back when he was in high school in El Cajon, California, his science class was tasked with building rocket ships in teams. (It was an activity he enjoyed a lot more than dissecting a frog.) The class headed out to a field to see whose rocket would fly the farthest. "We had an epic failure," remembers Johnson. "We maybe got a foot off the ground. I think because we were airborne we received a passing grade."
One of Johnson's goals off the track is to use auto racing, a sport in which drivers can go more than 200 miles per hour, as a way to teach science and math in schools. He has partnered with NASA to reach kids in classrooms across the country. "The g-forces that we experience in the corners [of a racetrack] are similar to what the astronauts experience taking off," explains Johnson. "We want to make our cars stick to the ground; they want to make everything lift off the ground. It's the same property, we just point the wings in different directions."
Now Johnson is hoping to fly through NASCAR's 10-race postseason, which ends on November 22, and win that seventh title. Knowing Johnson and Knaus, they won't be slowing down anytime soon. "You win a championship — of course you want to win another one," says Johnson. "I don't feel ultimately satisfied yet, so I keep going."
Photos: Todd Warshaw/NASCAR/Getty Images (car), Sean Gardner/NASCAR/Getty Images (profile), Nick Wass/AP (celebration)