Jimmie Johnson's best titles
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 23 Interview Issue. Subscribe today!
After the Sprint Cup finale at Homestead on Nov. 17, Jimmie Johnson is "five-time" no more. With his six NASCAR Sprint Cup championships -- five of them consecutive -- JJ is only one behind record holders Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Insiders once thought those men could never be caught, but at 38, Johnson now appears to have time on his side. Without looking too far ahead (the guy should get to celebrate this one, after all), we asked the stock car driver to rank his titles in terms of which are most special to him.
Jimmie Johnson: You're asking the impossible. But okay. In my mind, it's not 1 through 6. It's 1A through 1F. Here goes.
I say it's first on this list because it was the first championship we won. I think about just seven, eight years before that, and to end up on the big stage in New York being handed the Sprint Cup trophy -- it's just surreal. I was a dirt rat. I was a kid from California with a blue-collar background and racing off-road trucks. I was not supposed to be a stock car racing champion. But for some reason, Jeff Gordon and [team owner] Rick Hendrick saw something in me that, honestly, I didn't see in me. In 2005 [crew chief] Chad [Knaus] and I were done, man. We were ready to go our separate ways, but Rick called us in for a meeting, served us cookies and milk and told us to get our act together. That was all the stuff that added up to that first championship. A lot of people didn't know all of that then. But I sure did. And when I was up on that stage at the Waldorf Astoria, all I could think was: How in the world did this happen? Do these people know this shouldn't have happened?
The history of it is just ridiculous. A lot like 2006, it's a bit of an out-of-body experience. I think about it and it doesn't make sense that I'm mentioned in the same sentence with Petty and Earnhardt. But the difference between this year and the previous five championships is that I have enjoyed this one more. My daughter Genevieve is old enough now that she will remember this one. I am old enough now that I can really appreciate it more. I appreciate all of them, but this time around I have really made a conscious effort to slow down, take it in and really experience it all.
Ryan McGee: Slowing down. You're getting old now? Johnson: No! [Laughs] Johnson: Old-er, yes. Old, no. But when you're young and single or without kids, you're totally selfish. Always in a hurry. Always on to the next thing. When I watch things now through the eyes of a 3-year-old, it's a whole different world.
McGee: Now you also have a baby, so part of the goal is to keep winning so she can experience it all too.
That was the third in a row, and I always think back to Champions Week in New York and they surprised me by bringing Cale Yarborough up onstage to give me my ring. Until then, he was the only driver to have won three straight, and they brought him in to surprise me.
Johnson: I didn't know that then. And what he didn't know then -- no one did -- was what a huge fan of his I had been growing up. He drove that orange and white Hardee's car when I was a kid, and I remember you could get a little die-cast version of that car for like 99 cents at Hardee's. So I just bugged my parents like crazy to go get hamburgers just so I could get one of those cars.
McGee: Best eating in town, up and down, all around.
Johnson: [Laughs] And see, on the West Coast, it was hard to find one. We might have had to come way east to get that Cale car for me. I loved that car.
Five in a row. I mean, c'mon man. That's just crazy.
McGee: Is that your final answer?
Johnson: Yes. Five in a row. But when I think about five in a row, I'll be honest, I get a little irritated because I think about how easily it could have been six in a row and then seven in a row. Honestly, I think more about the way we lost the ones we lost than I think about the way we won the ones we won.
Johnson: When I think about this one, I just think about resiliency. The knock on us was that we'd never really had to deal with a lot of adversity. Well, we got off to such a terrible start that year and somehow managed to come back and win a fourth straight. All the way into mid-March, we were barely hanging on to the bottom of the top 10 in the standings. Even after we won Martinsville in March, we kind of tripped into the summer. Our goal was just make the Chase and see what happens. We won four of the 10 Chase races, three of the first four, and we had 'em then.
McGee: You won that one by almost 150 points.
Johnson: Good year.
McGee: And last but not least?
Johnson: See? That's why this is a crazy assignment. What's left? 2007?
McGee: Yep. Ten wins. Pretty much the best season you've ever had.
Johnson: Statistically speaking, yes. But emotionally, that was a really tough year because we were racing Jeff [Gordon] and the 24 team all year for the championship. We're teammates. Our cars and crews were housed in the same race shop. Jeff was the guy who gave me my big break. We were really close friends. [They've since grown apart, though Gordon still co-owns the 48 team.] It made for a weird experience. I felt like it was tough on a lot of the people at Hendrick Motorsports, especially Rick. How do you even watch a race when your two cars are fighting it out?
McGee: But it's a good problem to have.
Johnson: It is. And there was a lot of pride in going head-to-head with one of the greatest drivers and teams of all time. I learned a lot from Jeff that year about handling a situation like that with a friend who is also a competitor.
McGee: Now you've been at this for so long, young guys say that about you -- getting to race door-to-door with one of the greatest of all time, like Gordon or Petty and Earnhardt.
Johnson: That's another part of that out-of-body experience.
McGee: Just wait until you get to seven Cups.
Johnson: Then we'll have to figure out these rankings again. And that will be another good problem to have.