- David Newton, ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jimmie Johnson is mingling with friends in a wine-and-cheese kind of setting. There's television star Angie Harmon and her famous football husband Jason Sehorn over here. There's a CNN crew shooting a segment over there.
They've all gathered at the Hartz Witzen Gallery in Charlotte's art district to unveil 68 blown-up photographs from a book recently published by Johnson and his wife, Chandra.
Fourteen studios are within the perimeter of this building in historic NoDa, where artists paint, sculpt and perform on a daily basis. Just down the street in this offbeat area are funky restaurants where the typical demographic is much different than you'll find anywhere else in town, way different than a NASCAR crowd.
NASCAR and an art gallery.
What's wrong with this picture?
"I wondered the same thing," says Clint Bowyer, who climbed into Chase contention with a victory in Saturday night's Sprint Cup race. "[Jimmie] makes a lot of money. And when you make a lot of money, you've got a lot of friends that make a lot of money, and apparently they like art.
"I'm a long ways from art in my life. I don't have a lot of art hanging on my walls. A new Harley is art to me."
Bowyer is joking as usual, but there is some truth in his humor.
"I've got an art gallery," says Johnson's team owner, Rick Hendrick, referring to the warehouse adjacent to his Hendrick Motorsports empire where he houses a lifetime of memorabilia. "Mine's called the Redneck Disney World."
Again, NASCAR and art.
What's wrong with this picture?
Nothing when you consider it is Johnson. The five-time Cup champion, beyond being one of the most talented drivers in NASCAR history, is one of the most diverse.
He is as comfortable at an art gallery in Los Angeles or New York City as he is on a barstool in North Carolina or behind the wheel of the No. 48 Chevrolet.
The 208-page book of pictures photographed by Missy McLamb is called "On the Road." In it you'll get an up-close look into the personal lives of Johnson, Chandra and daughter Genevieve Marie -- Evie for short -- during their 10-week run at the 2011 title that came up short.
"When Jimmie started doing this project, what he wanted to show NASCAR fans, and even other sports figures and people outside the sport, was what he goes through during that grueling 10 weeks," Chandra says.
He shows much more.
"When we initially started the project I was real organized, like, 'OK, 10 weeks. We'll tell a story and what went on,'" Johnson says. "Then as we got into the project it started to open up and become more about the images."
Johnson can't give you some deep meaning or life lesson about each photo. But if you had time he could go one by one and "paint a picture for you."
As you turn the pages you will better understand the intensity and passion that makes Johnson a championship driver, husband and father. You'll understand why he is back in the hunt this year, only seven points behind Brad Keselowski heading into Sunday's race at Kansas Speedway (2 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The pictures Chandra specially selected for the gallery walls magnify this. You'll see some that didn't make the cut for the book, like Johnson giving a one-finger salute to Talladega from the airplane after a 26th-place finish that basically ended his hope of a sixth straight title.
"Yeah, I knew our daughter was going to see the book," says Chandra, who made the call on that one.
Hendrick isn't prominently featured in the book, but he's in the gallery with the simple title "boss" underneath a picture on the far wall.
As Hendrick looks around the gallery, he makes mention of all the photos of Johnson with his daughter -- a sign of what family means to his driver.
But the picture that stands out most to him, that tells what makes Johnson a champion, is the one called "Walking the line." It's my favorite, too. It's a black and white shot of Johnson all alone, hands in the pockets of his firesuit, walking to his car for qualifying under the lights at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
It carries the sense of solitude and loneliness that sometimes comes with being the best, the sense of focus on the task at hand.
Hendrick is drawn to this one because it symbolizes the "quiet time" Johnson wants -- no, demands -- once the Chase begins.
"He changes his whole lifestyle," Hendrick says. "To me, if I had to put something on that picture, it would say 'commitment.' Commitment to excellence.
"I've never seen anybody as focused and detailed at what he's trying to accomplish as he is."
We've seen that lately on the track as Johnson has almost perfected fuel-mileage runs, something he admittedly has "sucked" at, with top-4 finishes in two of the past three races.
In the book and gallery you'll see that commitment in photos of Johnson working out or studying a computer screen with an engineer.
Johnson has taken his commitment to a whole new level recently with triathlons. He has hired a special trainer to work with, particularly in the pool, where he swims for an hour and a half twice a week at 5:45 a.m.
"He has a plan, the way he works out, the way he eats," Hendrick says. "He told me he told Chani now that the Chase has started, there's going to be time for us to have some family time, but I've got to shift some things because I've got to have some time.
"He's already planned the races out. He was telling me where he wanted to finish at this race. He's like a computer. He sits in those debriefs. … I've never seen a guy that can break a lap down the way he does."
Says Chandra, "It's so funny. You go through the season and we're in our routine and … as soon as the Chase starts, it's like a new gear kicks in. It gets a little more intense."
You can see that intensity in many of the photos, particularly the ones in which Johnson is in the car or talking to crew chief Chad Knaus.
But the images in the gallery and book also show Johnson's noncompetitive, not-so-intense side. Most of those are centered around Evie, from holding her hand to feeding her breakfast.
Johnson's favorite picture in the book is on Page 89. It shows the raw emotion of him, Chandra and Evie trying to take in the death of IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon as they watched the news unfold on the television inside their motor coach.
Although Evie had no idea what was going on, the camera shows how she picked up the stunned energy from her parents.
It almost didn't make the cut, by the way.
Trying to narrow about 15,000 photographs to just more than 200 wasn't easy, particularly for a person such as Johnson, who is so particular about every detail of his personal and professional life.
But it's that mental toughness that makes Johnson such a threat to win the title year in and year out, that allows him to think outside the box and put together a project like this that seems so un-NASCAR-like.
"Probably not going to have any of those anytime soon," Bowyer jokingly says of him opening an art gallery showing.
But Johnson can pull it off. He does so because there are more layers to him than most.
"Jimmie Johnson is one of the coolest people in the garage, and most people don't realize that," Kevin Harvick says. "Jimmie can drink as much beer as anybody. He's as diverse as anybody, whether it's an art show or a golf tournament or eating hot dogs.
"This is what blows me away. The guy has won five championships and isn't the most popular driver."
That honor still belongs to Dale Earnhardt Jr. So maybe Johnson can be the most popular driver in the art world.
"This has been such an interesting project," Chandra says. "He focused on a project he wanted to do, not something somebody else was telling him to do. This wasn't driven by success. He wanted it to be his way. Whether it was successful or not, he didn't care."
If art truly transcends life, Johnson may be in store for more success on and off the track as the Chase winds down.
"I still feel like I'm getting warmed up," Johnson writes in the back of the book.
NASCAR and art.
What's wrong with this picture?
Nothing when you consider Johnson has been making art in a stock car since the day he went on his unprecedented masterpiece of five straight titles.
Nothing when you look at the masterpiece he may be creating again this year.
Jimmie Johnson's quest for a historic sixth straight Cup title is merely a memory. But we get to experience the 10-week roller-coaster ride in JJ's new book, "On the Road."