DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Seven o’clock in the morning? Are you freakin’ kidding me?
The champion’s breakfast at Daytona International Speedway has never been scheduled that early, at least as I remember it. Until today.
So when the alarm rang at 6:00 a.m. after a stint in the press box that didn’t end until 8:30 p.m. the night before — I was sorely tempted to hit the snooze button and sleep in.
After all, I thought, it’s just Jimmie Johnson. Sure, he’s a five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion. Sure, he had just won the Daytona 500 for the second time.
But where Johnson’s public persona is concerned, “snooze” may be a descriptive that’s too electric. Outwardly, Johnson is the functional inverse of the Dos Equis Man. Outwardly, he may be the Least Interesting Man in the World.
I can almost hear him saying, “I don’t always eat ice cream, but when I do, I choose vanilla — Blue Bunny, of course.” Can’t forget that sponsor plug.
Even those of us who go to the track every week rarely see anything beyond the business side of Jimmie Johnson. He’s like a cube, a die, if you will, always pointing the same face at us — so that all we see is the square.
But like a cube, Johnson has other faces, and a depth far beyond the two-dimensional figure his politically correct public image might suggest.
But at this point in his life, Johnson has even more reason to exercise restraint, where public perception is concerned. He has a family.
“We’re buttoned up when we come to the track, ready to work, and that may not paint the picture that some fans want to see,” Johnson said after breakfast Monday morning. “As a parent now, it’s amazing how many parents appreciate the buttoned-up, professional approach.”
One of Johnson’s special gifts is the ability to compartmentalize the various aspects of his life and maintain a laser-like focus on the task at hand. From the moment Johnson drives through the tunnel into a race track until the obligatory post-race interviews are over, he’s at work.
After Sunday’s race, though, the monolithic men-at-work aspect of the No. 48 team dissolved into spontaneous celebration. It started with Johnson’s aborted attempt at a burnout on the huge white-painted Daytona 500 logo in the middle of the tri-oval grass.
“It was pretty bad — I’m not going to lie,” Johnson said. “I just wanted a picture down on the Daytona emblem. I think that’s every driver’s goal, to get on the emblem and do a burnout. I turned it down, pulled it into second gear and thought I had the right angle to spin off into the grass.
“As I turned in, I guess the car rolling over allowed the right front to dig in, and I knew instantly, when it grabbed the dirt, that I had a big problem. Looking at my gauges, I still had water pressure and water temp, so I knew the radiator was still in it, but it didn’t go as planned.”
Hours later, after the public celebration in Victory Lane and interviews in the media center — long after the fans had left the grandstands — the No. 48 transporter pulled up to the start/finish line, and the winners’ bash began in earnest.
“We wanted to get our transporter out there and take a victory photo, ’cause it’s kind of cool,” said crew chief Chad Knaus. “It’s a cool backdrop, and one of the pit crew guys jumped up and he’s like, ‘Hey, let’s do the Harlem Shake!’
“And I was like, ‘All right, let’s see if we can get this thing rolling.’ We found a photographer from somewhere — I don’t even know where this poor guy came from. He was on a motorcycle, and he went back and got his tripod. It was funny, to say the least.”
At one point, Johnson reportedly was doing the Shake on top of the hauler, a source of concern for those familiar with Johnson’s history on top of vehicles. After his first championship in 2006, Johnson — having consumed the sort of product the Dos Equis Man promotes — was lying on top of a golf cart, flailing with his club polo-mallet style. The golf cart turned suddenly and Johnson fell off, breaking his wrist.
The accident kept him out of the driver’s seat for a month.
“I’m not going to lie,” Knaus said. “I had flashbacks of the broken wrist on top of the golf cart and all that, but we were keeping everybody in check pretty good.”
By “we” Knaus means the gendarmes at the track.
“The security guys knew we were here,” Johnson admitted. “They said, ‘Nice job celebrating, but you guys need to slow down a little bit.’ We had a lot of fun, just savoring the moment.
“One thing I’ve learned over the years now is to stop, slow down, soak it up and take it in.”
We seldom see the fun-loving, free-wheeling side of the five-time champion. The golf cart mishap is suburban legend, witnessed by a small circle of friends.
But now, with Johnson starting his 12th full season in the Cup series, there’s finally definitive proof of a common assertion among his friends and colleagues, that Johnson can be the life of the party. The camera caught the 48 team’s antics at the finish line, Harlem Shake and all.
Johnson told us Monday morning that the video is on the way to the editing room.
Let’s just hope that, for once, he lets everyone see it.
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