Jimmie Johnson has accomplished a storied racing career in a relatively short time. In 13 seasons, the six-time defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion has made a name for himself on and off-the-track. On the track, his 66 Cup victories rank eighth all-time, and he’s one title shy of tying NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. Off the track, he makes a difference through the Jimmie Johnson Foundation and various national relief efforts.
Johnson’s competitive desire combined with his partnership with six-time champion crew chief Chad Knaus make 2014 a season to watch for the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS.
The Early Years
While Johnson’s success has come quickly, it took hard work, dedication and help from a variety of people to get there. With the support of his family, Johnson’s racing career started on 50cc motorcycles at age 5. His father, Gary, worked for a tire company, and his mother, Cathy, drove a school bus. With Jimmie and younger brothers Jarit and Jessie in tow, the family spent most of its weekends camping and doing what it loved – racing. During race weekends, it wasn’t unusual to see Johnson’s dad preparing the tracks for racing and his mom running the concession stand.
Johnson was successful on motorcycles at an early age. By the time he was 8, he won the 60cc class championship despite blowing out his knee with several races remaining in the season.
From motorcycles, Johnson graduated to the Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group (MTEG) Stadium Racing Series, where he won more awards. A 1993 meeting arranged by his mentor, supercross champion Rick Johnson (no relation), proved fortuitous for the eager driver.
While racing at the Los Angeles Coliseum, Rick Johnson introduced his young protégé to the executive director of GM Racing, Herb Fishel. Fishel kept his eye on Johnson that year and the protégé lived up to his billing, impressing the director with his driving ability and business acumen. He later walked into an off-road racing team meeting and threw a picture of Johnson on the table informing the team that Johnson was the man they needed to drive their car.
Johnson seized the opportunity, spending the next few years driving buggies and trucks in off-road stadium and desert races. Johnson also improved his ability to connect with fans and potential sponsors by reporting for ESPN in the Short Course Off-Road Drivers Association Series (SODA).
In 1995, the work paid off in another way as Johnson met his future car owners Stan and Randy Herzog while working in the series. The following year, Johnson began driving the brothers’ off-road truck. After two years, Johnson was ready for the next opportunity and crafted a proposal, taking it to his friend Fishel. An impressed Fishel gave the owners and their ambitious driver a shot. In 1998, Johnson climbed behind the wheel of an American Speed Association (ASA) car for his first taste of pavement racing, and he never looked back.
His ASA victories paved the way for his move to NASCAR – initially in the Nationwide Series – before he made the full-time jump to Sprint Cup in 2002.
Sprint Cup Series Career
Johnson won his first Cup race in 2002, his rookie season, and since then, he has kept his name in the NASCAR Sprint Cup conversation. From 2002-2005, Johnson averaged a 3.5-place result in the championship standings on a combined 45 victories. In 2006, he finally broke through to win his first Cup championship and the sixth for Hendrick Motorsports.Johnson won his first three championships in dominant fashion. In 2006, he clinched his first title by finishing 56 points ahead of runner-up Matt Kenseth. He followed that with a 77-point win over teammate Gordon in 2007, and Johnson’s third championship happened in 2008 when he outscored Carl Edwards by 69 points.
In 2009, Johnson recorded his fourth title on the strength of seven wins, 16 top-five finishes, 24 top-10s and four pole positions. He became the first racecar driver to be named Male Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press in the organization’s history.
Johnson’s fourth title closed out a strong season in which Hendrick Motorsports finished one-two-three in the championship standings. His fifth championship was one for the record books as Johnson became the first driver in the 10-year history of the Chase to overcome a points deficit in the season-finale. He was only the third driver since 1975 to do so in any format as he went on to beat Denny Hamlin by 39 points.
Johnson, the only driver to win five Cup titles in a row, also became the youngest to accomplish that feat. He needed 327 races to achieve the honor, while Petty needed 655 and Earnhardt required 390.
While recording personal milestones, Johnson has contributed several to Hendrick Motorsports’ annals. He notably recorded the organization’s 150th and 200th Cup victories at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, respectively.
The 2011 and 2012 seasons were periods of transition for the No. 48 team, and Johnson worked with crew chief Chad Knaus to find the right combination while competing for the championship. Johnson, who averaged a 4.5-place finish in the final standings those years, came the closest to recording a “six-pack” in 2012. He was in contention up until the season-finale at Homestead, when a part failure ended his quest.
The 2013 Sprint Cup season was a banner year for Johnson, who kicked off his campaign by winning the Daytona 500. The victory marked the first for the Generation-6 Chevrolet SS race car and ignited a season in which Johnson scored six wins and paced the leaderboard for 28 of 36 weeks, including the final five en route to his sixth Cup championship. Along the way, Johnson recorded victories from the pole position at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway and Pocono Raceway. He became just the fifth driver all-time to sweep Daytona’s Cup events, when he went to Victory Lane at the 2.5-mile superspeedway in July.
In honor of his sixth Cup championship, Johnson was named the Richard Petty Driver of the Year for a record sixth time by the National Motorsports Press Association. He also was honored as NASCAR Illustrated’s Person of the Year.
The Jimmie Johnson Foundation
Johnson’s impact isn’t limited to the racetrack. Johnson and his wife, Chandra, launched the Jimmie Johnson Foundation in 2006. The foundation is dedicated to helping children, families and communities in need. To date, more than $5.6 million has been contributed to various organizations.
The foundation focuses on funding K-12 public education, primarily through the Jimmie Johnson Foundation/Lowe’s Toolbox for Education Champions Grant program. Champions Grants have been awarded to 63 school projects located in California, Oklahoma and North Carolina, where the Johnsons grew up and currently reside. Grant projects include science and technology, fitness programs, trade-based programs, school improvements, language and literary programs and the arts.
In partnership with Samsung and Lowe’s, the foundation also runs the Team Up For Technology program, a $48,000 technology makeover open to K-12 public schools nationwide.
In addition, the foundation selects 12 charities each year to be featured on Johnson’s Blue Bunny Helmet of Hope. These charities are selected from nominations made by fans and media members nationwide. Blue Bunny Helmet of Hope charities receive a grant of $10,000, a Blue Bunny ice cream party and national exposure on the helmet worn for a select Sprint Cup race.
Past foundation partnerships include working with San Diego Habitat for Humanity to construct four homes on Foundation Lane in El Cajon, Calif., Johnson’s hometown, and building Jimmie Johnson’s Victory Lanes, a four-lane bowling center for campers at Pattie and Kyle Petty’s Victory Junction in Randleman, N.C. In addition, in partnership with teammates Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and team owner Rick Hendrick, Chandra and Jimmie Johnson pledged their support to build the Toddler Playroom at the Ronald McDonald House of Charlotte.
The foundation continues to work with the Hendrick Marrrow Program, Make-A-Wish and Project L.I.F.T. The foundation’s signature fundraiser is the Jimmie Johnson Foundation Golf Tournament, held in San Diego. To date, more than $5.6 million has been contributed to various organizations.
‘On the Road’
Johnson and his wife, Chandra, delved for the first time into the world of book publishing in 2012 when they self-published, “On The Road,” a candid, photographic look at Johnson’s life during the 10 weeks of the 2011 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Demand for “On The Road” proved strong, and a second edition was ordered. Johnson also entered into an exclusive partnership with leading book retailer Amazon to offer an electronic version of “On The Road” for its Kindle Fire.