Champion Johnson Lets His Talking Do His Talking
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
Jimmie Johnson emerged as a non-controversial “sexy, six-time champion” during his historic guest host appearance on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” Tuesday evening, a NASCAR-themed hour that dredged-up the time-worn drivers-as-athletes debate.
Co-anchors John Anderson and Lindsay Czarniak steered Johnson through a full menu of stick-and-ball coverage, during which he wasn’t asked to mouth the show’s signature Dah-dah-dah, dah-dah-dah! theme or invent a personal highlight catch-phrase like “boo-yah!”
But Johnson let former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb off easy during a featured segment which questioned if drivers should be considered athletes. McNabb, former star quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles now working as an analyst on the NFL Network and Fox Sports, recently remarked that drivers should not be considered true athletes because all they do is “sit in a car and drive.”
McNabb – whose manhood was questioned when he famously threw-up in the huddle during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XXXIX in 2004 during a loss to the New England Patriots – obviously never has experienced the power of a Sprint Cup stock car. But Instead of shouting-down McNabb a la the network’s Stephen A. Smith or any number of its cadre of ex-jock analysts wearing suits to state the obvious, Johnson delivered his retort politely and with a smile.
“There’s so much going on inside the car,” said Johnson, seated between his co-hosts.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion. I’d love to invite him out to a racetrack and have him see what it entails – the hand-eye coordination, it’s blazing hot inside the car, the G-forces put on the drivers. There’s a lot going on.”
Interestingly, Johnson was backed-up by “Pardon The Interruption” co-hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon as part of the segment. Wilbon noted that at one point he did not consider racing drivers as athletes. But after attending a NASCAR race, he switched camps. “The physical demands are obvious,” Wilbon said. “You need strength and endurance and your hand-eye coordination has to be exceptional because the consequences are so much greater than in any other sport.”
Kornheiser added, “To be an athlete doesn’t mean you need to run and jump. I’d like to know if Jimmie Johnson ever threw-up in the last quarter of a race. A couple of years ago he drove me around on a practice lap in Richmond and I didn’t throw-up.”
Johnson confirmed that he and Kornheiser toured Richmond International Raceway’s 0.75-mile oval at around 65 mph in a Chevrolet Camaro street car, in street clothes.
“Lot of screaming, though,” Johnson said with a laugh. “He was hanging-on for dear life and a lot of screaming. Just a fun experience for us to show people what our sport is about. You’re inside the (Cup) car trying to manage your emotions, manage the race car, drive your tail off and trying to describe to your team what’s happening with the car. It’s hot, your heart rate is going up…there’s a lot going on. From your spotter to your crew chief, someone is always there (in your ear via radio).”
Johnson thus became the first athlete to guest host the network’s flagship news and information program, joining comedian and New York Yankees fan Billy Crystal and actor Ken Jeong in that capacity in the show’s 34-year history. Crystal appeared in 2012 and Jeong was on-set in Bristol, Conn., on Nov. 1. Johnson previously had appeared on “SportsCenter” on numerous occasions both in-studio and via satellite, but always as a NASCAR newsmaker. JJ also appeared in a humorous “This Is SportsCenter” commercial in which he used a pickaxe to remove speed bumps from the ESPN parking lot.
Since its debut on ESPN’s launch day of Sept. 7, 1979, “SportsCenter” has aired more episodes than any television show in U.S. history, reaching the 50,000-episode mark in 2012.
Johnson, a 38-year-old native of El Cajon, Calif., clinched his sixth Cup championship with a ninth-place finish during Sunday’s season-ending Ford Ecoboost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS fielded by Hendrick Motorsports, moved a giant step closer to matching seven-time Cup champions and NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with his sixth title in 12 full seasons.
During a national teleconference with motorsports media Tuesday morning, Johnson admitted he was nervous about his “SportsCenter” assignment later in the day. “It’s an opportunity that we’ve kicked around for a little bit,” Johnson said. “We had the date on the books in, I guess, late summer trying to make it happen. With (wife) Chani being pregnant, we had to cancel on it. Honestly, I’ve been pretty intimidated by this opportunity, although it’s one I want to take advantage of.”
As a resident of Charlotte, N.C., during the NASCAR season, Johnson said he follows area sports teams, including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. On cue, he handled the show’s voice-over opening, which included further review of the controversial final-play of the “Monday Night Football” game between the Panthers and Patriots.
Wearing a sport coat, jeans and substantial beard, Johnson introduced himself via his first teleprompter reading. He then posed a Six-Pack of NFL questions to former linebacker Tedy Bruschi without butchering a single player’s name. Johnson later was handed the reins of one-on-one live interviews with Jarrod Saltalamacchia, catcher of the 2013 World Champion Boston Red Sox, and University of Oklahoma head football coach Bob Stoops.
Johnson’s duties closed with comments during a “NASCAR Not Top-10” segment, beginning with his now-infamous crash into a wall of huge foam blocks in Turn 1 at the Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International road-course during a Nationwide Series race in 2000. An exuberant Johnson scrambled out of the car, stood on the roof and spread his arms in victory!
The segment’s No. 1 moment was a clip of Brad Keselowski celebrating his 2012 Cup championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway by swigging sponsor’s Miller Lite beer out of a giant class, slurring his words and looking tipsy during an ESPN interview.
As the hour hurriedly closed, Johnson remarked to his co-hosts, “It’s amazing. It was so much fun; thank you for dealing with me all day long.”
Asked by Anderson about his favorite moment, Johnson said, “Just that it’s over. It’s a scary deal.”
Prior to his ESPN gig, Johnson appeared on the “Late Show with David Letterman” Monday night and on “Live with Kelly and Michael” Tuesday morning. During the latter appearance, Johnson was instructed by co-hosts Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan to read his introduction off a teleprompter verbatim – complete with the “sexy, six-time champion” line that became the day’s running gag.
Here is an edited transcript of Johnson’s Tuesday morning teleconference as part of a two-day Champions Tour:
Question: Jimmie, what has been the highlight of your victory celebration and the tour so far?
Jimmie Johnson: “There’s been a lot of great stops. The media and opportunities we’ve had have been awesome – Letterman, Kelly & Michael. I’ve been very wellreceived, warm welcomes across the board. I’d say the best part really was enjoying things Sunday night with my crew guys who put so much time and effort into the season. To finally have the weight of the championship off our shoulders, have the success that we did, it was good fun, to say the least.”
Q: Could you talk about how much you appreciate this coming off of the twoyear low in the championship battle. How do you see your responsibility going forward as champion?
JJ: “I look back on those two years, and there wasn’t anything from those years that motivated me any more than normal. I’ve been so fortunate to win the five before that, it’s kind of crazy to look at missing a couple opportunities or not being a factor, especially in the ‘11 season. Last year we were in the mix. As I mentioned before, I just want to be in the mix.
“To have expectations to win championships is unfair or what. I think it’s more realistic to expect an opportunity at a championship. To win, that’s a whole different story. I made the (10-race) Chase every year it’s been around, so I’ve had that opportunity. I take a lot of pride in that. My motivation to follow through this year and to work as hard as I can really is the same motivation I’ve always had to succeed in this sport.
“I’ve worked so hard and long to get to this point, I’m finally on top of my game. I’ve worked a lifetime to get here. There’s more motivation staying on top for those reasons than chasing stats and the historical things that are out there in front of me now; it’s really something that comes from within.”
Q: Jimmie, I know it’s been less than 48 hours since you won the title. How quickly did the buzz from winning the championship wear off? At what point are you back in next year’s mode?
JJ: “The buzz, it will last a while for sure. Preseason testing will start things focusing back on the year really. My team, they were at the shop Monday, (crew chief) Chad Knaus was, as far as I know. Those guys work so hard through the season. The rules packages, on-and-on, shoot, they’ve probably been in ‘14 mode for a couple months focusing on the areas we can _ transporters, pit boxes, things that can be done in advance.
“For me it’s really February when we get to Daytona and we start racing. It might linger a few more weeks after that when I’m introduced in various situations. When timing and scoring goes hot again and it matters, that’s when things transition into the new year.”
Q: Jimmie, the season just ended. This is your sixth championship. With the recent exit of Dario Franchitti from IndyCar, then Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, is there a point you’ve set where enough is enough, where the danger gets too much, or will you race as long as you want?
JJ: “Danger in our sport is something I’ve faced since I was a kid racing dirt bikes. I think racers like to ignore those dangers. We pursue our passions and our dreams. As time has gone on, the advancement of safety, especially the NASCAR tracks you compete on, we’ve been really able to make our sport safe.
“Again, there are dangers. There are things that I choose to overlook. Having a family does make me think at times, especially when I’m out of the car. But, again, it’s what I do. I put a lot of confidence in the SAFER Barriers, the head-and-neck device we all wear now, the research and development that’s gone into making NASCAR as safe as it is today. I find great peace in that.
“There still is the risk. I think it’s smaller than it’s ever been. My wife and I both take comfort in that. It’s just part of racing.”
Q: Your thoughts on what makes Chad such a great crew chief. You guys have been together a long time. Obviously you get along 90 percent of the time. When you do have a dispute, when you see things differently, does he usually win? Is it a 50/50 deal, or what?
JJ: “It’s a team sport. It takes all the members of the team to get it done. Chad, the responsibility he carries, he has more I think pressure on him than any member of the team. He has to keep a balanced budget within (team-owner) Rick Hendrick. He’s responsible for the guys that go over the wall, for the guys that turn the wrenches, he’s responsible for the speed of the car, technology advancements_ all those things.
“I have a pretty stressfree week until I show up at the racetrack. He is greatly responsible for it all. What percentage is hard to say. I know the pairing of us, there’s something magical there and it works. I say this confidently _ I would not have the success I’ve had in this sport if it wasn’t for Chad and our relationship together. So I give him a major tip of the hat, the total credit that’s due. He’s a big part of all that.”
Q: When you have a dispute, does he get the final say or is it a 50/50 deal?
JJ: “Final say? He really leads the team on many, many levels. When it comes to calling the race, I had an idea the other night about our tire strategy. I’m glad he didn’t listen to me because it played-out completely the opposite and he was right. I just find I get to verbalize what I’m feeling in the race car, pass it along to him, let him decide on all the big topics. I’m basically good at being told what to do.”
Q: Sunday night I think was maybe the most emotional that we’ve seen you ever. What is it like now having a family there, two little girls, to celebrate with? We saw pictures you were posting. What is it like to see Genevieve and having a family to share with?
JJ: “It’s an incredible experience. There’s such joy and pride. My family makes a lot of sacrifices to support me. So much respect and appreciation of the sacrifices made. I’m not sure why Chani was emotional as she was. She’s typically not, nor am I. When she started to lose it, it sucked me in, I started to lose it as well. There was just an overwhelming sense of pride. It comes from a lot of different angles, the work that goes into it, the sacrifice. I’m just a proud father and a proud husband.
“There’s something activated in me _ I think all parents can speak to this – once you have kids and they’re born, your heart changes and you love in different ways, a different capacity. All that stuff is going on, leads me down the road to where I am today, the position I’m in today, enjoying those moments.”
Q: After you held up the Cup, you leaned down and looked like you were talking to Evie. What has it been like watching her trying to understand this?
JJ: “It’s been really neat. She gets it for the most part. The championship part, I’m not sure she understands how that all works just yet. She knew I didn’t win the race, but we were holding the trophy and celebrating. She asked me a couple questions I’ve been trying to explain. I’ve been trying to explain for a few weeks about the championship, the points, what daddy is trying to do. It still hasn’t registered yet.
“Denny (Hamlin) was in Victory Lane. She didn’t understand why we were celebrating. It’s been fun trying to teach her all those things.”
Q: What has been the most surprising, the thing that stands out in the last 36 hours, as far as the celebration or the media tour that you’ve been on since Sunday night?
JJ: “I’d say the magnitude of the sixth championship. I knew it would be big if we were able to accomplish it. But it’s traveled wide-and-far. That’s been the most surprising thing to me.”
Q: You’re part of a fourcar group with Jeff Gordon and the rest of the guys (teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne). How come they can’t get up to where you guys are? Is it not a fully open shop?
JJ: “Yeah, I know that’s a popular question. There are four cars. We all have the same equipment. We do develop our own styles as far as a driver, a crew chief, the way we set our cars up. We kind of migrate off into different directions, although they are close together. We do end up with differences in our cars. That boils down to the crew chief and driver styles.
“We look outside of our four cars, the StewartHaas organization, they have all the equipment as well. When you break it all down, at the end of the day, I put the weight in the people. The connection and communication between the driver and crew chief is really where that starts. You can branch off into race-calling, drivers competing, tracks, things like that are other sidelines that play a key factor into it. “But I put a lot of weight into the driver/crew chief relationship. Over the years we’ve seen pairings that work and I feel fortunate to have that happen with me and Chad.”
Q: A lot of people think the racetracks in the Chase should be changed. With your success, you probably would like to see it stay the same. Correct?
JJ: “The tracks that are in there are pretty good for us, so I would love for it to stay the same. At the end of the day, I want what’s best for our sport. If it’s best to change, move markets, road courses _ whatever it be _ I want to see our sport grow and thrive, so whatever is best for our sport.”No Comment