Local NASCAR Hero Jimmie Johnson Looks toward Daytona
Fresh off his historic seventh championship win, the San Diego native talks career highlights, passionate fans, and tacos
You grew up in El Cajon and graduated from Granite Hills High in 1993. Any fun stories about your childhood here?
Growing up, I was so eager to move out of the San Diego area to start my racing career. I had been away for a few years and came home to visit. After a few days, I was like, Why the hell did I ever want to leave? San Diego is amazing—you don’t even realize how amazing it is until you leave.
What do you still connect to in San Diego?
I still have many connections with friends and family. The Jimmie Johnson Foundation has also helped build eight homes on Foundation Lane in El Cajon with Habitat for Humanity.
Do you have a favorite local spot?
Los Panchos Taco Shop on Main Street in El Cajon. It’s a must-have every time we visit.
What’s something people might be surprised to learn about you?
That I’m just a normal guy. I’m the dad who waits in the carpool lane like everyone else.
Your driving style has been described as fearless. What, if anything, scares you?
Plenty scares me, and I don’t feel that I’m fearless in the car. You have to have some fear to keep your wits about you. But as a parent, I’m scared of everything every other parent is! There is no escaping that. I experience fear every day.
Winning my first race at California Speedway in 2002. You never forget your first win, and to win in California was even better—and it’s helpful for job security. And then winning the seventh championship in 2016. It’s all still sinking in.
After your sixth cup win, it looked like the rules were changed to hurt you. Do you agree? Did you or your team do anything different to get to that seventh win?
Haha! NASCAR switched up the Chase format after my sixth championship, and although I thought it was going to be good for the sport overall, we struggled with this format. It’s NASCAR’s best take on a play-off system. You start with 16 guys and go to 12, eight, and then four drivers are eligible to win it all at the last race of the season in Miami. You have to run well every single week to stay in contention. I’m so proud that we were able to win the championship in this format because it’s such a challenge.
What’s your biggest challenge heading into the Daytona 500?
The challenge really lies on my Hendrick Motorsports team at our shop in Charlotte, North Carolina. Hundreds of hours go into the building of our speedway cars. For me, I will just continue to maintain my physical fitness and make sure I’m 100 percent heading into what is the start of a very long season. Daytona is our Super Bowl—we go there to win.
NASCAR fans are notoriously passionate. Any funny or weird fan encounters?
With social media being such a huge part of life now, postrace Twitter rants by fans are my favorite. As far as in-person, there are two women out there who have my six cup trophies and the number 48 tattooed on their backs. They come to a few races each year, and when they do, they wear tank tops so everyone can see the tattoos. One year in Charlotte, they stood in line to get an autograph, and they asked me to sign their backs because they were running across the street to get my signature tattooed. They are now branded for life, and I guess they are probably making room now for trophy number seven.
How does it feel to be in the same class as Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt as one of three NASCAR drivers to win seven titles?
It’s just unbelievable. I wouldn’t be where I am today without so many people believing in me and giving me a chance, from my dirt racing days up until now. That race was not going in our favor until the final ten laps. Some luck came our way, I had a good restart, and we won the race and the championship. I have so much respect for Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. I would have loved to race against either of them. To be mentioned in the same sentence is still unbelievable. I said this in my speech at the awards banquet and it sums it up pretty well: “I will never be ‘The King’ or ‘The Intimidator.’ I’m just a guy from California who wanted to race.”