Stock-car racing fans may be scratching their heads for a while over NASCAR’s four-time top gun. Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson is not your father’s good ol' boy. A California desert rat that began his career on two wheels, he was in his twenties before he actually raced a car on pavement. Jimmie is good looking, well mannered, articulate and congenial. He may be nothing like the cartoon-character drivers that the folks in the infield love, but even they have to admit, when it comes to getting lucky, no one can do a better job than Jimmie.
In 1992, Jimmie won his first of three-straight stadium motocross championships in the Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group Stadium Racing Series. The following year, supercross legend Rick Johnson (no relation) introduced him to Herb Fishel of GM Racing during an event at the L.A. Coliseum. Fishel agreed to back Jimmie in off-road buggy and truck racing, and the teenager was soon one of the top drivers on the Short Course Off-Road Drivers Association (SODA) Series and the SCORE Desert Series.
Johnson's truck-racing career was fraught with ups and downs. During the 1994 Baja 1000 endurance race, Johnson, after 20 hours of racing, fell asleep behind the wheel in the middle of the Mexican desert, flipping his vehicle into a sand wash. Johnson and his co-driver were rescued two days later. For days, Johnson stewed over the mistake. From that day forward, Johnson strove to be a cleaner, more precise driver.
Johnson left California in 1996, when he was 21, and headed to Charlotte, North Carolina, hoping to forge a connection with race team owners. He was patient and persistent in his efforts. "I would go to places where I knew crew guys ate lunch and I'd sit there all through lunch just trying to meet people," Johnson told Sports Illustrated’s Lars Anderson.
In 1998, Jimmie graduated to the American Speed Association Grand National circuit. He was named Rookie of the Year after finishing fourth in points. A year later, he finished third in the standings.
In 1999, he started five Busch (Nationwide) Series races, led 22 laps and collected one top-10 finish.
Jimmie became a full-time Busch (Nationwide) Series competitor in 2000. Though he did not record a Top 5 finish in 29 starts, he still wound up 10th in the standings. Jimmie admittedly did not have much asphalt experience, but he was a fast learner and an intuitive analyst when his machine wasn’t feeling right. He seemed to grow with each race.
In 2001, he made his Winston (Sprint) cup series debut with three starts; he had his best finish that year at Homestead-Miami speedway with a finish of 25th. He also finished 8th in Busch (Nationwide) series points, driving for Herzog Motorsports.
Also fueling interest in Jimmie’s breakthrough season in 2002 was his rivalry with fellow rookie Ryan Newman. It had been a long time since two first-timers had challenged for the championship in the same season. Jimmie, however, did not win NASCAR Rookie of the Year. Although he would out-point Newman, and finish 5th in the Winston (Sprint) cup championship points, the award was based on each driver's best 15 finishes. Newman beat him out.
In 2003 Jimmie finished second in Winston (Sprint) cup series points. He spent all 36 weeks in the standings' top 10, the only driver to do so that year. His season highlight was winning the rain-shortened Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte in May, one week after winning the All-Star event, which was also in Charlotte. He again swept season events, but this time at New Hampshire. He ended this miraculous season by finishing in the top three in the last six events to secure runner-up finish in Winston (Sprint) cup series championship.
In 2004 he again finished second in the Nextel (Sprint) cup series points standings. He finished second only by eight points behind champion Kurt Busch, in the closest championship finish in Cup history. Jimmie led the points championship for nine weeks during that season. He also led series in wins with eight, and top-fives with 20. He started the ten race chase fifth in the standings, and dropped to ninth after first three races. He rallied by winning four of the year's last six races including three consecutive (Charlotte-Martinsville-Atlanta). This year he had three season sweeps, winning both events held at Darlington, Charlotte, and Pocono. His string of 70 consecutive weeks in the top 10 ended in Week 2, after a 41st place finish at Rockingham.
His last year without a championship to date was 2005. In that year he finished fifth in series points, won four races, including the season sweep at Charlotte, which included a third consecutive Coca-Cola 600 win. Johnson is the first driver to win three consecutive Coca-Cola 600s. His other two victories came at the September events at Dover and Las Vegas.
In 2006, the title came down to the final race and a nail-biting finish. Before the start of the season-ending Ford 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, Johnson knew a 12th-place finish would be good enough for the title. For Johnson and his crew, the race should have been fairly stress-free. However, flying debris ripped a hole in his car's nose causing an unexpected and lengthy pit stop near the start of the race. When Johnson re-entered the race after the repairs, he found himself in 40th place. Bit by bit, Johnson edged his way up through the field of drivers to finish ninth, earning enough points to win the title. "I worked my whole life for this," Johnson said after winning the Nextel (Sprint) Cup, according to the Miami Herald. "That weight fell off my shoulders. We've worked so hard to get to this point and we didn't want to let this one slip away”. He won his 1st of 4 straight Sprint Cup series titles to date. He finished that year with five wins, 13 top-fives, and a series leading 24 top 10s and one pole. He spent all 36 weeks of the season in the top 10.
In 2007 he was one of only 14 drivers in the 58 seasons of NASCAR to win two consecutive series titles. He finished the year with 10 wins, 20 top-fives, 24 top-10s and four poles. He was the first since Gordon in 1998 to win 10 races in a season. Four consecutive wins late in the Chase solidified his legendary title run.
One question was one everyone's mind heading into 2008: Could Jimmie make it three in a row? He was just 40 points out of first place when the Sprint cup Chase for the Championship began. The third event of the Chase, at the Kansas Speedway, saw Jimmie win his first of four races during a five-event stretch. After victories at Lowe’s Speedway, Martinsville and Atlanta, he had a whopping 183-point lead. A win in the second-to-last race, the Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500, all but assured him of a third straight NASCAR title. The only driver who could catch Jimmie was Edwards. He did is best, winning the season-concluding Ford 400 in Homestead. Jimmie, however, was to strong and won a third consecutive championship. Tying the great Cale Yarborough (1976-1978).
The 2009 season promised to be another campaign of front-running, especially after NASCAR announced its new double-file restart policy. Jimmie had always been good in restarts, and this reconfiguration favored him every time a caution flag came out. In all, Jimmie won seven Sprint Cup races in 2009 and earned over $7.3 million. This one was not the easiest, nor the hardest to win with teammate Mark Martin breathing down his neck the whole time but finally fading in the last race.
At this point, it’s fair to say that Jimmie and Hendrick Motorsports have mastered the Chase for the Cup system. Jimmie and his crew spend the year refining their approach and getting their car running right and tight—and then blow through the final 10 races. For skill, consistency, and knowledge, there may never have been a team better suited to dominate in NASCAR’s modern era. In 2009 Hendrick Motorsports got a 1-2-3 finish in the points for the first time ever with, 1) Jimmie Johnson, 2) Mark Martin, 3) Jeff Gordon.