Ross D. Franklin, Associated Press
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Just a few weeks after winning his first NASCAR championship, Jimmie Johnson was goofing around with his friends when he decided to climb atop a golf cart during a charity event. As he pretended to surf, Johnson fell off the cart and broke his wrist.
Concerned that such a silly incident could tarnish his reputation, or anger his team and sponsors, he lied about the circumstances of the accident.
Of course, the truth eventually came out, and Johnson was even more embarrassed.
So began a journey of personal growth and maturation for one of NASCAR's greatest drivers. For some athletes, that means toning down the nightlife and focusing on the job. For Johnson, it's been more about balancing the two sides of personality — the talented, super ambitious driver and the guy who likes to have a good time.
In the early morning after his fourth championship, Johnson was found asleep on the curb outside his South Beach hotel when the car service arrived to take him to what ended up being a grueling day of media appearances for a hungover champion.
The next year, his first as a father, he rolled his pants legs up and stood in the sand and surf surrounded by his five championship trophies in a quiet moment of reflection at sunrise.
There won't be such a celebration for Johnson this year. His record run of five consecutive championships came to an end with a whimper last weekend at Phoenix, where he crossed the finish line in 14th and was mathematically eliminated from title contention. Sunday will mark the first time since the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship format began in 2004 that Johnson won't be eligible to win the title heading into the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"I'm definitely disappointed, but that's motor sports," Johnson said. "It's a very tough business. What we did over the last five years was absolutely spectacular. Being on top for as long as we have been takes a lot of effort to maintain that.
"It just takes a lot out of you. So this will be a nice winter to unplug and relax and dissect the different areas of the race team and come back stronger."
Nobody has been stronger the last five years — more, maybe, if you go back to 2003, when he finished second in the final points standings.
He won eight races in 2004, the first year of the Chase, and finished eight points behind champion Kurt Busch. The next year, he went to Homestead ranked second and with leader Tony Stewart in reach, only to crash out of the race with a tire issue and finish a distant fifth in the final standings.
Johnson left Homestead possessed.
"The pressure I put on myself to win a championship was so great, it was like life or death in 2006," Johnson said. "I watched two great opportunities pass me by in '04 and '05, and I wasn't sure I was going to get another chance at a championship. So it was really like life or death for me in '06. Then when I won one, then came trying to chill out a little bit and learn to enjoy racing and enjoy the challenges and learning how to be more confident and comfortable in my own skin."
He's the first to admit it's not been an easy road.
Johnson, a 35-year-old Californian, worked his entire life trying to wow sponsors into giving him the money he needed to pursue a racing career. It required him to be buttoned-up, the consummate professional and constant salesman. It left him guarded, and for a long time didn't help him get the on-track success he craved.
He was collecting a paycheck, but he didn't start picking up wins until he signed with Hendrick Motorsports in late 2001. Even with that big break, Johnson kept a clear distinction between work and play that created the stereotype of a "plain, vanilla driver."
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