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NASCAR Legend Jimmie Johnson on Staying Fit, Focused—and Alive

The Daytona 500 champion tells MF about his passion for driving and competing in triathlons.
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On an overcast day at Watkins Glen International speedway in New York, two cars barrel down the straight at top speed toward turn No. 1. They’re neck and neck. As the sharp right turn approaches, the vehicle on the outside begins to slow down. The No. 92 Alltel Chevrolet on the inside track does not. Anyone can tell that something is wrong. “Oh, my God!” the TV commentator gasps—but it’s too late. The vehicle leaves the track, catches enough air to clear the gravel trap entirely, and smashes head-on into the wall at breakneck speed without even the slightest hint of deceleration, pulverizing the dense foam blocks and hammering an impression of the front of the car into the Armco barrier. Silence.

There’s some movement inside the car. A few seconds later, Jimmie Johnson emerges from the driver-side window and climbs onto the car’s roof. Visibly dazed, he stands up tall and raises his arms in the air. He’s OK.

More than 12 years have passed since Johnson’s harrowing brush with death, but it’s not the kind of experience a man forgets. “Brakes go to the floor, and I’m at top speed,” he recalls. “Find the video and you’ll understand the ‘Oh, sh—t’ moment.”

Professional motorsport is not for the faint of heart. Florida’s Daytona International Speedway, where Johnson earlier this year won his second Daytona 500 title, is among the top - 10 deadliest tracks in the world, with 26 recorded competitor fatalities. Pole position on that list goes to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indiana, home to the Indy 500, with 68 deaths. In fact, American race-tracks are accountable for more motorsport fatalities than any other nation in the world.

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