Over the final third of the race, Jimmie Johnson found another gear. One by one, he picked off three of the four men in front of him. When only the leader remained, Johnson settled behind him and waited.
"I could see he was suffering," Johnson said. "I saw there was a hill coming up, and I caught my breath on the flat, waited for the hill, smoked by him and tried to break his spirit on the way by so he wouldn't try chasing back.
"So there was this whole planning and strategy that went on that was the same stuff I do in the car, so it was crazy to experience that."
Johnson, the six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion, laughed as he recalled his running-leg finish two months ago in the Over The Mountain Triathlon in Kings Mountain, North Carolina.
Johnson, 38, finished first in his 35-39 age group and 11th overall with a time of 2 hours, 30 minutes and seven seconds over the 1,500-meter swim, 45K-bike and 10K-run course. It was just the third triathlon he's completed in three-plus years of swim-bike-run training. But blame that more on his schedule than his fitness or desire.
Johnson's NASCAR calendar simply isn't in sync with weekend triathlons. When asked how he balances training with his full-time gig driving his No. 48 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, his business and charity work, shooting TV commercials and going to meetings -- plus trying to be a good husband and father -- he laughs again.
"Yeah, I can tell you it doesn't help with balance," he said. "It's thrown the balance off. I've got to cram stuff in when I can. A lot of early mornings."
He says his wife, Chandra, has taken to calling it his "second job." But as far as Johnson is concerned, getting fit is a necessity and competing in triathlons is the carrot that keeps him going. Swimming, biking and running all those miles has increased his stamina behind the wheel, given him a release and provided an extra sense of accomplishment every day.
Johnson had been a cyclist (BMX) and swimmer as a teen in San Diego, but in recent years felt out of shape.
"Fitness has always been involved, but there's been good years and bad years," he said. "Especially when I look back to photos of myself. But the last three years I've just loved the variety of triathlons and the fitness it's brought me, the peace of mind. There's certainly a lot of mental benefits that come with being fit. ... It's a release for me, a good way to burn off energy and stress."
It was about four years ago that Johnson caught the tri bug. He was getting in some runs and bike rides in the late-summer heat when it occurred to him that getting back in the pool might be nice (and a lot cooler). So Johnson -- a high school swimmer -- found a pool near his home in North Carolina and got in a couple of weeks of workouts.
"There were guys in the water training for various events, and we started talking," Johnson said. "They asked what event I was getting ready for. I didn't have one."
But the question planted the seed. Johnson, who says he'd always had a curiosity about triathlons and has watched the telecast of the annual Ironman World Championship race in Hawaii, began to look for a sprint-distance triathlon that would fit his schedule. It wasn't easy, but Johnson found one the following summer in Charleston, South Carolina, on a Sunday morning in July of 2012.
The catch: the night before, he drove in the Coke Zero 400 in Daytona, Florida. So Johnson and several members of the Hendrick Motorsports team -- including driver Kasey Kahne, whom he'd steered toward triathlon training -- got on a plane after the race and flew to Charleston to arrive in time for the sprint triathlon (600-yard swim, 12-mile bike and 3.1-mile run).
Johnson finished in 1:11:57 and says he "was hooked." His next triathlon came in December of 2012 in the HITS Palm Springs race. He finished first in his age group and ninth overall in 2:17:45 over the Olympic-distance course (1,500-meter swim, 40K bike and 10K run).
He had to wait almost a year and a half to squeeze in his next tri at the Over The Mountain race in May, but enjoyed it thoroughly -- especially because he did so well on the run, which wasn't always a strength.
"I got out of the water, there was three or four of us that got out as a group, and on the bike they rode off and I didn't see them," he said of his age-group competitors.
"Then on the run I ran 'em all back down and passed them."
He not only showed his kick but got one from the race where -- of course -- his bib number was 48.
"As I passed and went into the second spot, I had the same butterflies as I do chasing the leader for a car race," he said.
Getting a coach
After completing his first triathlon, Johnson decided to get more serious. He started training with Jamey Yon, a longtime triathlete, six-time Ironman World Championship finisher and owner/coach of TRI-Yon Performance in Charlotte. What Yon saw was a pretty good athlete whom he says was "in fair shape."
Two years later, Yon says Johnson has made great progress and his triathlon results "are awesome," especially considering the demands on his time. When Johnson is home, Yon meets with him daily to plan workouts. But those schedules are fluid.
"I know in my head what I want him to get done, but we kind of take it day by day and I try to get a feel for what his week looks like and then schedule accordingly," Yon said. "But we reschedule daily. I don't lay a whole week in front of him, because there's no way."
Johnson says he gets up at 5 a.m. three to four days per week and works out from 5:30 to 6:30 before his family gets up. Then he looks for windows throughout the day when he can go for a run or ride -- and he takes both his road bike and mountain bike with him when he travels.
Monday, usually the day after NASCAR races, is a big workout day for him. He'll run seven to 10 miles and swim 2,500 yards or more. Saturday mornings, too, are good days to get in a long bike ride. Yon says Johnson has run as many as 20 miles at one time and gets in 50 to 80 miles on his bike on the weekends.
Johnson says he uses a couple of apps to help him find running or cycling routes (Strava) and pools (SwimRadar) when he travels. But his lap workouts aren't exactly tailored for a superstar/celebrity.
"It isn't easy, and sometimes you're in a local Y pool and the water's 85 degrees, there's maybe one lane open and there's water aerobics and kids playing in the pool and you're over there trying to get your workout in," he said.
Yon says Johnson's personality as an athlete is much like what his NASCAR fans see: someone who is calm, levelheaded, organized and highly competitive.
"He's very goal-oriented," Yon said. "He likes to pick a race and train for it and he also likes to be as conditioned as possible. So he dials in his diet. He's always asking questions about diet and the most efficient way for him to get from Point A to Point B."
Johnson wants to do a half-Ironman or Ironman at some point, but doesn't believe his schedule will allow it until after he retires as a driver. Yon says Johnson would be ready now except for his schedule.
"He's a goal-oriented person and that's on his bucket list for sure," Yon said.
For now, Johnson will continue to train and squeeze in sprint- and Olympic-distance tris when he can. Yon knows the races and training not only feed Johnson's competitive DNA, but also help him be the best driver he can be.
"He's added a little bit more skill to his driving, just through the amount of focus he can put forth and him never getting tired in the car," Yon said. "A lot of those guys are cramping in there, losing all that sweat and everything. His body's kind of adapted to all that through running and biking hard and swimming hard, putting all that lactic acid in your body and working through those mental and physical barriers."
Johnson, in fact, now feels a huge difference on post-race Mondays.
"In the past, before my fitness was at this level, Mondays were tough," he said. "I mean, I was real lethargic on the couch, no energy."
Now, Mondays are for training.
"There's no chance four years ago I could go run seven miles after a race," he said.
Johnson already knows the next two triathlons he'll be doing: the Cane Creek Sprint Triathlon on Aug. 19 and the Lake Davidson Triathlon on Sept. 7. Those two events are part of a four-race series in North Carolina called the Wellness Challenge, sponsored by the Jimmie Johnson Foundation.
In the first event, a 5K in April, Johnson participated and set a PR of 19:05. Because of his schedule, he was unable to make the second event, the Lake Norman Excursion cycle-run on July 12.
He says he was inspired to put on these events by the triathlon and running communities he's come to know. Races and competitors are continuously raising money for causes, and he wants his foundation to be doing the same thing, while also providing means for people to get fit and think about health and wellness.
And since he became a triathlon disciple he's been spreading the word among his peers, too -- as have some other drivers.
"I know 30 or 40 people in the garage area that have picked up the sport, have bought bikes or are riding or running or swimming, and to watch these people all lean out, get fit, feel great, it feels awesome knowing that you're helping people live a higher quality of life," Johnson said.
In addition to triathlons, Johnson has twice run the Daytona Beach Half Marathon and has a goal of running a full marathon next year. He ran this year's Daytona race -- which finishes on the Daytona International Speedway -- in 1:28:16, about a minute faster than in 2013. He's hoping he can run the Boston Marathon in 2015.
One of the good things about Boston: it's on a Monday. No conflict with NASCAR.
It may be hard fitting in all his running, cycling and swimming, but Johnson is committed to training. It's now part of his life.
"I love it. I truly enjoy it," he said. "The downside is when certain weeks or months get busy and I'm not able to train. Watching my fitness slip away eats at my brain so bad that it puts me in a bad mood to say the least. It's addicting."