The leader in a NASCAR race is uniquely challenged, feeling the pressure of being out in front, knowing he has no other cars to draft behind and instead has the entire field lurking behind him. But Jimmie Johnson is getting used to looking at the rest of Sprint Cup racing in his rearview mirror. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet goes for an unprecedented fifth consecutive Sprint Cup championship this season, but Johnson said the motivation for repeating is only getting easier with time. "I use fear to motivate myself," the 34-year-old Johnson said last week. "I'm entering this year saying, 'We're going to get beat.' That way I work as hard as I can, the team works as hard as they can. We don't leave a stone unturned. I've always used fear to motivate myself. … As I get better and better in the car, I still have all those fears. I've grown to enjoy them. I look forward to them. I know they're good things to keep me on my game."
Johnson's game has been remarkably consistent in a sport whose competitive depth doesn't leave much room for dynasties. Before his reign, NASCAR's top series had six different champions in a seven-year span from 1999-2005.
With four titles, Johnson matches Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon for the most among active drivers. Only Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, with seven crowns each, can boast more in NASCAR history. NASCAR went 30 seasons before any driver could pull off three titles in a row, as Cale Yarborough did from 1976-78 — until Johnson won his third in a row in 2008.
The fourth title gave him a success that transcended racing — he was the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year for 2009, beating out tennis star Roger Federer and world-record sprinter Usain Bolt. The interest from fans is high enough that HBO took its documentary series 24/7, usually about boxing, and followed around Johnson, his team and his family, with about 20 HBO employees on hand this week at Daytona.
A fifth championship would put him past Gordon, who co-owns Johnson's racing team with Rick Hendrick, adding another level of competition to their relationship and rivalry.
"There is no one more motivated and annoyed by our success than Jeff," Johnson said. "I mean that in a great way. He's in the same shop. He's driving the same equipment. He wants to be that guy, and he's always been that guy.
"The competition we have keeps our team on top, and I have to give him credit for managing the relationship side of it and setting an example of how we can be so competitive … but maintain a great friendship as teammates."
Another challenge Johnson will face and embrace for the first time this season is fatherhood. Johnson and his wife, Chandra, are expecting their first child in July. As luck would have it, one of the few off-weeks in the Sprint Cup schedule falls in the middle of the month, potentially allowing Johnson to be there for everything without missing so much as a practice lap.
Johnson's unflinching success in a sport liked for its unpredictability is something that motivates other drivers more accustomed to dealing with the ups and downs of stock-car racing.
"It's reality. This sport is very, very tough. It's reality for everybody but Jimmie," driver Carl Edwards said. "They've somehow been able to stay on top."
There are imperfections in Johnson's dominance — the way his Sprint Cup points have dropped off slightly in each of the past two seasons, much the same way his total earnings have dropped three years in a row, though his 2009 haul of $7,333,309 doesn't look entirely meager.
In some ways, Johnson has owned the circuit even more. He led 2,237 laps in 2009, which marked the third straight year he led more laps than the year before — in his first championship season, he led just 899. In other words, he's getting more and more comfortable being out in front.
"The fear is easier to come by these days," Johnson said of his driving inspiration. "It's been so good, there's only one way to go. The fear is more readily available to maintain what we've been doing."
Times writer Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com and at (813) 226-3346.