Jimmie Johnson strode through the lobby of the TPC Tampa Bay clubhouse in Lutz, spied the placard bearing the logo of his celebrity golf tournament and pulled off thick, black sunglasses. He entered the restaurant full of major and more major sports luminaries smearing cream cheese on bagels, worked the room, then escaped to the foyer to find someone who could help him find a driver. Johnson had forgotten his golf clubs. Or maybe they had been pilfered from his luggage, considering the gauze wrapping a wound that required 16 stitches to mend a gash on his left middle finger. His handlers and foundation employees were instantly atwitter. "Jimmie wants to play. No," they whispered and texted to each other. "The doctors didn't clear that." Johnson seems fairly oblivious to the notion that something is beyond his 3 wood if he wants it badly enough. He has won three consecutive Sprint Cup championships to tie Cale Yarborough's record, and no matter what media polls or bored-of-the-story fans think, there's no reason to discount the possibility of a fourth. Johnson, 33, has more victories (40) than any driver since his rookie year in 2002, 17 more than the next-best, teammate Jeff Gordon. His crew chief, Chad Knaus, is considered one of the most innovative in the sport. He's a member of a Hendrick Motorsports team that has won almost a third of the Sprint Cup races since 2006. And Johnson wants that fourth title.
So he's not about to wither. Not to the Sprint Cup field. Not to a finger he sliced with a kitchen knife trying to cut a hole in his firesuit during the Rolex 24 sports car race in January.
"I've always been accident-prone," he said, smirking. "But I've always said, 'If you're going to be accident-prone, be tough enough to handle it.' "
In his earlier years in NASCAR, growing in the long shadow of Gordon, his friend/car owner/teammate, Johnson had spoken about the difficulty of being true to one's own personality with so many to please, particularly sponsors who expect a certain type of citizen in exchange for several million dollars.
As his win total ballooned and his career began to take on historic importance, Johnson slowly began revealing his inner self, though he says he's unaware of the process because it's not intentional.
Perhaps nothing humanized him more than a joyride atop a golf cart in Mike Hampton's charity golf tournament in Lecanto in December, 2006, when Johnson was flung to the ground, breaking a bone in his wrist. Since, he has joked about red eyes and an angry liver when describing his offseason merriment following his titles.
"It's kind of a weird situation because I don't feel like I'm making an effort or doing anything different than I normally would," Johnson said. "People maybe are digging deeper and maybe are more aware of how I phrase things or what I say, but I truthfully have not changed a damned thing about myself. I'm just me, man."
This Super Bowl weekend golf event in Lutz with friend Nick Lachey is his first trek to a golf course in Florida since that day, and his partners in crime — minus Hampton — are en route. Major-league baseball players Brian and Marcus Giles, childhood friends from El Cajon, Calif., are late, but it is a virtual certainty they will make up for lost time when they arrive.
• • •
Gordon has broadened his social circle beyond the garage. He drinks lobster bisque from tiny little cups before sitting for interviews with fashion trade magazines. He hosts morning talk shows.
Johnson has acquired that skill, also.
Ken Griffey Jr. had just finished mocking driver Brian Vickers for his blindingly pale legs — "Where'd you get those long white socks?" — when Johnson sidled up to the tee box for a chat.
"Man, when are we going go-carting?" he asked.
"I'm good, man. Anytime."
"I'm not too bad. I warn you," Griffey said, cocking his head and grinning mischievously.
New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck leaned in with a question. Another day in rarified circles, another day of Johnson being surprised how wide his fame has spread.
"It's taken me a little time to get used to that," he admitted.
Two years ago Johnson was introduced to then-retired cyclist Lance Armstrong and introduced himself to the seven-time Tour de France champion with "I'm Jimmie Johnson. I'm in NASCAR."
"He said, 'I know, champ. I saw you win that race the other day. Good job.' I was like, 'Are you kidding me?' " Johnson said, laughing.
• • •
Johnson and Lachey are pulled away to make a few opening remarks. Marcus Allen, Jerry Rice, John Smoltz and several others of their sporting ilk gather by a line of carts for a group photo.
A course employee whispers to one of Johnson's representatives.
"I have two bottles of Grey Goose and one Patrón stashed out on the course."
Then Johnson takes the microphone.
"Beer is recommended if not suggested in our opinion," he said. "There may be a few more things out there."
There is the Jimmie Johnson of perception and the one of reality, which he shows when the occasion is right. He can deliver a quote or pose for a boardroom-suitable photo, but inside there is a guy who finds it hilarious to have the word "Johnson" — minus his first name as is typical for drivers — on the belt of his firesuit.
Johnson is already sipping on a beer when his cart screeches to a halt at the first hole. He jumps out with a driver and a ball and a tee, and no worries. His employees wince. His playing partners don't seem concerned.
Johnson sends a drive deep down the fairway, doesn't even look at his bandaged finger, and returns to the cart with a "what'd I do?" look.
"Soft and buttery," he said.
An ESPN cameraman documenting the non-news squeezes onto the back of another cart, not about to miss what might happen next.
"Why don't you hop up there on top," Johnson says, grinning. "That usually works out."
Somewhere between holes No. 1 and 2, the faint sound muffled by a chilly wind becomes a full-bore caterwaul. Then a rebel yell, sort of, or the sound of a man pushed from a plane. There's really no explaining how the Giles boys got their golf cart to go so fast, but it rips past in a beige blur. The party has now begun.
If there is to be an unnatural end to Johnson's championship run, it could emanate from the mischievous minds of his friends. (Or maybe he dodged that one already.) They like to have fun and as professional athletes they can afford to make it bawdy fun.
On this day in Lutz, $180,000 was raised for the Jimmie Johnson Foundation and several other charities. That was in keeping with the work-hard, play-hard, be-yourself mantra that underpins the event and Johnson himself. Nothing new. It's just that everyone is finally realizing it, he said.
"I've never been one to do what other people want me to do," he said. "I've just been myself and that has been the guy who's wanted to do the right thing and say the right thing. But that still doesn't mean that I don't have fun and get people laughing, kind of the ringleader at times of chaos. All those are good things."
The 51st Daytona 500 3:30 pm., Sunday, Daytona International Speedway. | TV: Ch. 13
The 51st Daytona 500 | 3:30 pm., Sunday, Daytona International Speedway. | TV: Ch. 13
Thursday, February 12, 2009 | Section C
* * * *