Grim statistics, of course, have not deterred Johnson, 37, from becoming arguably the country’s most successful athlete behind a steering wheel. And he’s racked up a few statistics of his own along the way. After winning the Daytona 500 in 2006, the El Cajon, CA, native went on to win his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship later that year. He did it again in 2007. Then again in 2008. And again in 2009, the same year he was named Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year—the first racing driver in history to receive the honor. The following year brought another first for Johnson, when he took home his fifth Sprint Cup Series title to become the first driver in NASCAR history to win the championship for five consecutive years. He’s won the Driver of the Year award four times, he’s managed to box out superstar athletes like LeBron James and Tim Tebow for the No. 1 spot on forbes.com’s Most Influential Athletes list for the past two years in a row, and, earlier this year, Johnson crossed the finish line at the Daytona 500 in his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS to win the iconic race for a second time. And he’s got a Harlem Shake video on YouTube to prove it.
They say that up to 60% of the human body is water. That number might be slightly different for Jimmie Johnson. Gasoline runs in his blood. His grandparents owned a motorcycle shop, his mother was a school bus driver, and his dad volunteered at the local racetrack. “It was really the focus of my family,” he says. “Some families are football families, some families are baseball families—I was born into a racing family.”
Despite a childhood and adolescence spent racing mud-spattered motorcycles, dirt buggies, and finally stock cars, Johnson didn’t pose a serious threat on the track until 2002, when he joined forces with Hendrick Motorsports and crew chief Chad Knaus, a dream-team alliance that still endures today. The result was explosive. “It was the perfect storm,” Johnson says.
The final stage of Johnson’s metamorphosis into a truly elite athlete was one that many will find surprising. Succeeding in racing at the highest level has become about more than just the car, or even the driver’s skill behind the wheel. While it’s not immediately obvious to the casual observer, physical fitness has become a make-or-break factor in NASCAR over the past decade, and being among the first to realize this has put Johnson at a significant advantage. “Before, the car would break down before the driver’s fitness level would give up,” he told Men’s Fitness in a 2009 interview. “Now, the cars are so superior that the weak link is the driver in a lot of the cases.” To ensure that his body wouldn’t malfunction before his ride did, Johnson, who swam and played water polo in high school, took to training like an athlete in the truest sense in order to gain an edge over his competition. “There’s a lot of jump rope between weight sets; sprints; running; and stuff where we’re elevating my heart rate and trying to teach my body to recover,” he said. “The mindset being that I’ll have more energy and perform better at my job.” He also started paying more attention to the foods he put into his body, and even began spending time in a hyperbaric chamber to help cleanse his lungs of the carbon monoxide that he’s exposed to in the car.