Fast-forward four years to today, where fitness has become such an integral part of Johnson’s life that it’s no longer just about helping him succeed on the track. In his quest to transform his body into just as much of a performance machine as the Chevy he whips around the oval, Johnson inadvertently led himself to the front door of a lost aspiration.
“I always had this fantasy about triathlons,” he says. “I remember tuning in as a kid, viewing the Wide World of Sports and watching [Ironman] Kona, and just thinking, ‘Wow, this is the ultimate.’ ”
The motivation to train for a triathlon struck out of nowhere. “I just wanted to get back in the pool,” Johnson says. “I went to a local Y in Charlotte and started swimming again. After I was in the pool for a few weeks I got to know a couple of the other guys and they were telling me about the events they were getting ready for and really just encouraged me to try a sprint tri.” So he did, and in July of last year Johnson competed in his first sprint-distance triathlon. He didn’t have any formal training. He didn’t even have enough sleep. “The biggest problem I have is I work on the weekends,” Johnson says. “I did it after our Daytona race. I raced all night, then flew to Charleston, got four hours of sleep, and then did the triathlon the next morning.” Johnson completed the race, but he wasn’t satisfied. He knew he could do better if he just trained properly. He was hooked.
To take his training to the next level, Johnson enlisted the services of Jamey Yon, a triathlon coach and the founder of TRi-Yon Performance in North Carolina, where Johnson lives with his wife, Chandra, and their 2-year-old daughter. With Yon’s help, Johnson was able to complete an Olympic-distance triathlon just five months after his first foray into the sport, followed by a half-marathon two months later. Slowly but surely, Yon is transforming the NASCAR driver into just as much of a force off the racetrack as he is on it. “I started teaching him about the proper way to train and move,” Yon says. “To get better and faster and to move up in distance, too.”