Commentary

The greatness of Jimmie Johnson

Updated: November 19, 2013, 1:23 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- Interact with Jimmie Johnson, even in passing, and you'll notice almost immediately that his greatness should not be measured in wins or championships. It should not even be measured in a race car.

The wins and the championships and the race car merely provide the platform to display the impact of his greatness.

The greatness is the man.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Graythen/Getty ImagesJimmie Johnson is a father and husband first and foremost, a six-time Sprint Cup champion second.

This is an estimate based on experience: I probably know 20 men who will tell you Jimmie Johnson is his best friend. Rare is the man who integrates seamlessly into every crowd. Rarer still is the man who means it.

Johnson makes it look easy. He makes everything look easy. That's his true talent. Because the fact is, nothing he does is easy. Racing is not easy. Winning is damn sure not easy. Parenting and husbanding aren't easy. He's just willing to work harder than you are.

It's no wonder so many folks think they hate him.

They don't hate him. They envy him.

Sustained envy invariably produces a false sense of dislike.

Then you meet the guy. And you realize he's the real deal. Suddenly you're faced with a choice: love or hate. His competitors love him. All of them. And he beats them. A lot. The decision's on you, man. He's cool with either one.

Because he's spread thin. Thinner than his frame, recently reshaped through endurance-training workouts so ridiculous you must see to believe. Granted, seeing doesn't equal understanding. One must participate to understand. And not many could hack it. Not many can do what he does on the pavement (20-mile runs at a pace of 7:21 a mile; 45-mile road bike rides) or in the drink (3,000 meters in an Olympic-size pool).

This training is merely the latest example of an unmitigated desire to recreate himself in the tireless effort to ensure he doesn't rest on past achievement. The past is nice. He appreciates it. The past has made for a sweet life. But the past is dangerous. And the past terrifies him.

Never rest.

He grew up humble. The first eight years of his life were spent in Los Coches Mobile Estates, a trailer park in East County, Calif. His parents were awesome. They worked hard and never sweated the small stuff. They loaded up the boys -- Jimmie, Jarit and Jessie -- and rolled out to the desert to ride dirt bikes and eat burritos and laugh from the gut.

Gary and Kathy Johnson never pressured their boys. It was all about fun. But Jimmie was driven. And with real-time, right-time opportunity, that drive has evolved into consumption. He is all consumed.

He strives to be the best. Not just the best driver. The best husband. The best father. The best friend. The best son. The best brother. The best athlete. The best philanthropist. The best neighbor.

The guy hands out Halloween candy to the neighborhood kids. Seriously.

That can wear on a man, all that greatness. Any man who tries to be great in every facet of his life stays worn out. So most don't try. Most find a niche to hedge. They don't take the kids to school or practice. Or they don't always fully engage in work. Or they sit on the couch instead of attacking the dishes. Johnson does the dishes.

He wakes before dawn to run. Then runs home to make his girls breakfast. Then he eases through the carpool line at his oldest daughter's school. Then he speeds over to the Y to torture himself in the water some more. Then he speeds back to the carpool line to pick his daughter up from school.

His résumé is fascinating. So are his manners.

He greets every person in the room. Whether you like to believe it or not, when a man of his stature enters the room for an interview and shakes a cameraman's hand or an audio-tech's hand, or greets the guy in the race shop who is preparing the shocks he'll run three days later, it lasts a lifetime. Those positions are largely anonymous positions. They are background. They are not spotlight.

So when the spotlight comes to them, and means it, it lasts forever.

He never makes a media person feel stupid for a question. Even a stupid question. That matters to a wide-eyed, green reporter just finding his or her way. It's damned daunting to stand up and ask a legend a question in front of your peers. Reading this, you may not think so. But go stand up and raise your hand in a room full of writers you've read your whole life and start talking into a microphone, you'll see. Trust me.

At that moment, the interviewee has a choice: Bury the reporter and damage his confidence, or consider the question and do his best to offer an answer. That's not always easy -- especially when the interviewee is frustrated or is posed a shallow question.

Johnson is always considerate. Ask any of my peers -- they'll agree.

He waits for ladies to be seated before he sits.

He takes his wife's coat.

He's one of those rare souls who makes every person in every room he enters a better person. I've met a few folks like that in my day. My granddaddy is one. My momma was one. Randy Dorton, too.

Johnson may be the best. But maybe that's because he's the most famous. And therefore the most is expected of him.

Some guys who share similar professional acclaim are selfish. They don't mean to be. Not all of them. But their environment promotes it and enables it.

Money and fame, man. It's evil.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesSix Sprint Cups in eight years? Yeah, that's greatness.

With it comes responsibility.

I thought about all of this in a matter of minutes Sunday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway. I was seated high above the frontstretch in a suite, bright lights of "SportsCenter" burning down on my position from the front; the Sprint Cup championship trophy gleaming behind me in the glare of the stadium lights.

We were waiting for Johnson to arrive for an interview, in which I would attempt to pull from him some sort of raw emotion in the greatest of his first-ballot Hall of Fame moments. And as I waited, I thought back to January 2000, and a random coffee table at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills.

I was 23 years old, a reporter for NASCAR.com, a country boy out in L.A. to cover the Busch Series banquet. My job there was to chronicle what each of the top-10 drivers was up to during the offseason and to discuss the previous season with them.

On this particular morning, I was hung over. And it was bright. I'd been out the night before with the fine folks from Anheuser-Busch, who sponsored what is now the NASCAR Nationwide Series. And here I was at 8 a.m., licking my wounds and pretending to be just fine.

I'm supposed to interview a guy named Jimmie Johnson. He could walk around the corner and I wouldn't know who he was.

And then he did.

Around the corner comes this guy, disheveled, trying desperately to hide the hangover. He failed.

And he looked familiar. Because he was out with the Anheuser-Busch folks the night before, too. We were in the same gang. And we shared the same pain.

"Marty?"

"Jimmie?"

"Yeah, man."

"How about we meet back here around ... What? ... 3?"

"Awesome."

Then I thought back to the 10 o'clock hour of Oct. 24, 2004. I was driving home from Martinsville, Va., emotionally destroyed. A Hendrick Motorsports plane had crashed into Bull Mountain near Martinsville, killing all 10 people on board. Included in that group was our dear mutual friend Ricky Hendrick -- Rick's only son.

Johnson won the race that day. He never went to Victory Lane.

He instead was shuffled off to the NASCAR mobile headquarters inside the track to learn that his friends and mentors were killed in a plane crash.

That night, deep into the 10 o'clock hour, I rode west on remote North Carolina Route 158 toward Winston-Salem.

The phone rang. It was Johnson.

He knew I'd had to work late that night, writing our friend's obituary, and was traveling home alone.

And he knew I was sad.

He just wanted to check on me.

That is the greatness of Jimmie Johnson.

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