LOUDON, N.H. — Jimmie Johnson sat at the Cask ’n Flagon, where he hosted and participated in a luncheon last month involving a panel of past standouts from Boston’s four major professional sports teams. The Sprint Cup driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet listened as Celtics guard JoJo White, Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, Patriots guard Joe Andruzzi, and the Bruins left winger John Bucyk spoke about the bond they shared as champions.
When each panelist was asked what lesson he learned from winning a title, Johnson, winner of an unprecedented five Sprint Cup titles from 2006 to 2010, offered a revealing glimpse when he replied, “Dealing with pressure.’’
Pressure? What pressure could Johnson possibly feel now?
With eight races remaining before the field is set for NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, Johnson, 37, will enter Sunday’s Camping World RV Sales 301 as the series leader with a 49-point edge over Clint Bowyer.
Johnson’s dominant victory in last Saturday’s Coke Zero 400, which enabled him to sweep the restrictor-plate races at Daytona International Speedway after his season-opening triumph in the Daytona 500, gave him 64 career victories and fattened his bank account with $126,286,470 in career earnings.
So, he won’t have to worry about having another mouth to feed when he and his wife, Chandra, welcome a second child this summer.
The initial pressure Johnson dealt with was learning how to win his first championship in 2006. He openly wondered how many such opportunities he would get after he finished runner-up in 2003 and 2004, his third and fourth years driving for Hendrick Motorsports.
When Johnson’s run of five championships was snapped in 2011 by Tony Stewart, it came as a sobering dose of reality.
“I didn’t realize the pressure I was under to keep the streak alive until Phoenix when I was mathematically eliminated,’’ Johnson recalled. “But we didn’t have the speed to run with Tony and Carl [Edwards, who finished runner-up] that year, and that was really frustrating because we were working our butts off to have it and we just didn’t have it.
“We just got beat.’’
As difficult as it was for Johnson to admit as much, it gave rise to frustrations that seemed to test his ironclad relationship with crew chief Chad Knaus, whom Johnson credits as the architect of the 48’s success.
“We started to implode because of frustration,’’ Johnson said. “That’s very important for Chad and I not to have moving forward. We don’t want to have that situation happen again.’’
When Brad Keselowski rose up last year to claim the 2012 championship, Johnson was encouraged that “We didn’t implode.’’
“We didn’t beat ourselves, which is something Chad and I talk to the team about a lot,’’ Johnson said. “It’s always been a mantra of ours: ‘Let’s not beat ourselves.’ And for five straight years, we didn’t beat ourselves.’’
After a two-year hiatus, Johnson is in contention for his sixth championship, which would give him a special place in NASCAR’s pantheon of champions as a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
“Oh, yeah, nobody does that kind of stuff nowadays,’’ said Hall of Fame driver Rusty Wallace, the 1989 champion. “For him to do that [win five in a row], and now we’re talking who’s going to be the guy to win the title this year, hell, I’m saying Johnson because he’s still fast as lightning and he’s still got the same crew chief, Chad Knaus, and they haven’t given up on each other.
“Money hasn’t driven them apart. They still win and they still run up front all the time, so you’ve got to believe that Johnson is going to win this thing again. They had a couple of problems the last couple of years, but they’re back on track right now.’’
At what point during his title run did Johnson figure out how to handle the pressure?
“I’d say a big moment was the third or fourth race of the year, my first year [at Hendrick Motorsports],’’ Johnson said. “I think it was Atlanta. I ran third or fourth all day long and I think I finished top five and that was a big moment where I thought, ‘Wow, I can deal with the pressure of running in this series with these Cup guys.’ ’’
While he was confident in his capabilities to run with Cup guys, Johnson was uncertain about his ability to beat the Cup guys until, that is, he won his first career race in 2002 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.
When it all came together in 2006, with the first of his five championships, Johnson was off and running. He had but one overriding thought: We can do this.
“We made a lot of people mad over those five years,’’ Johnson said with a chuckle. “I think Chad, in his mind-set and work ethic and direction, he took the car setup and I look back and he’s highly responsible for where things are today.’’
With each title, Johnson added to his confidence and his growing legacy, drawing comparisons with legends and seven-time champions Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt. With each title, the 48 team added another chapter to their championship playbook, one which Johnson said was borrowed from Ray Evernham and Jeff Gordon.
“Jeff hand picks me and I come into that system and Chad comes into that system. And, in ’01 and ’02, we were basically given Jeff’s cars and we weren’t allowed to experiment until we were able to outrun the 24. We needed to learn how they went about their business and Chad and I were so thankful for that.’’
Now, Johnson’s relationship with Knaus serves as the gold standard between driver and crew chief. But some early potholes had to be smoothed over by car owner Rick Hendrick, who sat down Johnson and Knaus in a now-famous meeting at which Hendrick served milk and cookies to his driver and crew chief.
Hendrick’s message: If Johnson and Knaus insisted on acting like children, then they would be treated like children. Or, if they preferred, they could act like adults and hash out their differences as professionals.
The message hit home.
“In the end, even when it’s been as rough as it’s been, neither one of us was ever ready to call it quits,’’ Johnson said.
Now, theirs is a relationship built on mutual respect, trust, and honesty — brutal honesty.
When Johnson won last weekend, becoming only the second driver in Daytona history to sweep both races at the high-banked, 2.5-mile trioval since Hall of Fame driver Bobby Allison did so in 1982, Knaus lauded his driver’s place in the history books.
“The thing that I think I’m proud of is just the simple fact that as we achieve these milestones, to have our team and our driver Jimmie Johnson be compared to the likes of Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Richard Petty,’’ Knaus said. “I’m just extremely proud of that. It’s something that I think this whole team needs to appreciate.
“I can remember when we started this team, we didn’t have anything. We hadn’t won a race, we hadn’t led a lap, we hadn’t done anything, and the first thing that we did was come down here for the Daytona 500, and we sat on the pole.’’
That was an amazing feat, but it was only a harbinger of things to come from Johnson.
“For us to be able to achieve these milestones is pretty special, and I know one day we’re going to sit back and we’re going to look at it and be like, ‘Man, remember when we did that and we tied Bobby Allison for being the only team to have won both races in Daytona in a single season?’ That’s pretty cool stuff.’’
Asked if he and Knaus had perfected a system of winning championships, Johnson was adamant.
“No, heck no,’’ he said. “You get measured by it weekly, where you stand. You feel like you’re on top of it from time to time, but it’s an ever-changing environment we live in and it’s tough to stay on top.’’