MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Jimmie Johnson has gone stealth. Most fans in the grandstand at Martinsville Speedway likely have no clue that arguably the greatest NASCAR driver of this century is just below their feet, training for the Boston Marathon.
On this March day, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion already has raced for hours at a morning practice, attended strategy meetings, and then signed autographs and posed for selfies for fans. Finally, he escapes through the pit tunnel and ducks into his mobile home.
He quickly emerges wearing shorts and a T-shirt, dark sunglasses, and a ball cap pulled low. Before anybody can say, “Start your engines,” he’s already pounding the pavement under the metal grandstand at Turn 3, striding past the parking lot and into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
On this day, he wants to run 10 miles, but problems with the No. 48 Ally Chevrolet leave him time for only 8. The sweet mountain air feels good when he hits the road.
“It’s a mental escape,” says the winner of 83 races, most among active drivers. “And you are getting a fitness boost.”
The sounds of scanners and screaming engines are substituted by the songbirds of spring.
“To go get an hour at a time without a phone, without anybody pulling on you, I mean, that’s a big piece of it for me,’’ he says. “An hour without a selfie.”
“It’s amazing how he shoehorns everything in,” says Earl Barban, No. 48 team spotter who serves as Johnson’s eye in the sky on race day. “His drive, his passion to compete is what makes him a good athlete.”
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Johnson, 43, has competed in numerous half-marathons and triathlons, including a Half Ironman (70.3) where he missed a turn and covered 72.3 miles.
He usually trains six days a week, completing up to 5 miles of swimming, 40 miles of running, and 100 miles of cycling. But now he’s concentrating on running, logging 80 miles this particular week.
“The plan is to slowly increase mileage while maintaining intensity level,” says Jamey Yon, founder of TRiYON Performance and a former professional triathlete who trains Johnson.
Johnson had hoped to run 100 miles this particular week, but a nagging IT band injury and a bad virus set him back nearly a month in his training. Today, he concentrates on hill repeats.
“My legs were beat up, and I was thinking that my coach just likes to inflict pain on me,” Johnson says with a laugh.
Truth be told, running is not his favorite sport, but he excels at it in his triathlon age group.
He says the first step is the hardest, especially for the 5:30 a.m. running group that he sometimes joins when he’s home in Charlotte.
“There’s many times that I don’t want to put my shoes on and many times I don’t want to run as hard as I need to, but you’ve got to do stuff you don’t want to do.”
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Johnson has long had the Boston Marathon on his bucket list. But it became personal after the 2013 marathon bombings.
Sean Collier, the MIT police officer shot and killed in the bombing aftermath, has a brother, Andrew, who worked as a machinist in the engine shop at Hendrick Motorsports. After a win, Johnson would routinely shake the hand of every employee there and check on Andrew during those times.
Johnson met the entire Collier family when he raced in New Hampshire, and he and his teammates put special decals on their racecars to honor Sean just three months after the bombings.
“That only cemented my desires to compete and experience Boston,’’ says Johnson, who will wear bib No. 4848 at this year’s marathon. “I wanted to go back and be a part of Boston Strong.”
This year, NASCAR scheduled a race at Richmond Raceway April 13, which gives Johnson a full day to recover before going to the starting line in Hopkinton to run his first marathon Monday morning.
“There’s not another athlete running the marathon that’s going to be doing a 3-4-hour event two days before the marathon, so that will be tricky,” says Yon.
But in the heat of battle, when interior car temperatures can reach up to 140 degrees, Johnson believes the endurance training makes him stronger and more alert in the car. It is that same mental toughness that it takes to run a marathon, he says.
“It challenges me on a different level, and I have to dig deep to make stuff happen,” he says. “And that’s what you have to do in that racecar.”
In February, Johnson ran the Daytona Beach Half Marathon in the morning, finishing in 1 hour and 34 minutes, second in his age group, and then jumped into his racecar and won the Clash, an exhibition race. Although he called it “a good day,” he says it hurt to race after he ran.
“It wasn’t pleasurable. It wasn’t blissful,” he says with a smile, his salt-and-pepper beard looking a lot like the checkered flag that has eluded him for nearly two years.
Johnson is a decade down the road from being named 2009 Male Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press. The award prompted a blast of exhaust from then-Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, who famously declared that a racecar driver is not an athlete. Johnson, who won five consecutive championships from 2006-10, says it used to bother him, but no longer.
All athletes get criticized, he says. “I mean, Tom [Brady] deals with it plenty. Is it him or is it [Bill] Belichick? Is it him or is it someone else on the team?”
The usually humble Johnson believes he is just as good an athlete as Brady is in his respective field.
“A tie,” declares the 5-foot-11-inch, 167-pound Johnson. “I know that won’t play well in Boston.”
Johnson shares Brady’s obsession with nutrition. During race week, you won’t catch Johnson eating the famous red Martinsville Speedway hot dogs, “fully loaded” with chili, cole slaw, onions, and mustard on a steamed bun. The refrigerator in his mobile home is stocked with only healthy choices: lots of chicken, plenty of avocado, fruit, brown rice, breakfast toast with egg whites, and plenty of water. If Johnson has ice cream, his trainer says, he’s riddled with guilt.
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Following Johnson before, during, and after a race is a blur of scheduled chaos.
After his afternoon run on this March day, he changes back into his firesuit and climbs back into his racecar to qualify for the race.
Make no mistake about it, he still believes he will win an eighth NASCAR championship, which would pull him out of the tie with legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr.
“Oh yeah, we can get it,” says Johnson, an 18-year veteran. “It’s a process, I’m just trying to stay patient.”
But his goal of running a three-hour marathon is anything but patient for a first-timer. “I don’t know if it’s this year, but I have always succeeded by setting lofty goals,” he says.
At the start of the 2019 season, Johnson ran 20 miles with retired Navy Seal David Goggins, who preaches fighting through pain.
“When my mind wants to quit I’ve got to callous it,” says Johnson.
Johnson conquered the Assault on Mount Mitchell, a 103-mile bike ride with a 10,000-foot climb in North Carolina while battling stomach issues.
“That’s a tough day,” he says with a smile.
He says recently he’s been studying up on Heartbreak Hill. He knows a bit about hitting the wall. Literally.
In 2016, his steering wheel came off in his hand in Phoenix, and his racecar kissed the wall, but he escaped serious injury.
“I was really, really embarrassed by it,” Johnson says. “My crew chief asked me what happened. I couldn’t even say it over the radio. I didn’t want everybody to hear it.”
He later fessed up that he forgot to lock the steering wheel in place.
Worse was when the brakes failed in Watkins Glen in 2000, and he plowed into the wall.
“That’s the most helpless feeling,” he says. “You’re just along for the ride.”
Johnson says he routinely gets beat up in the racecar. His glutes and hamstrings on his right leg are sore from working the gas pedal and brake.
He compensates by doing strength work and stretching. Dehydration and heart rate are concerns, too. He learned from tests at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute that he has a higher sweat rate than normal. In 2014, he collapsed after finishing at Richmond Raceway and was given five liters of IV fluids.
But quitting is not in his vocabulary.
“He has an innate ability to tap into a deeper level when he’s hurting. If someone else is hurting, he’ll go deeper to beat them,” says Jesse Saunders, No. 48 team car chief.
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Back at Martinsville Speedway, it’s race day, and Johnson has steering problems with his Camaro ZL1 that plague him at every turn. He gets lapped twice, bumped repeatedly, sustains left rear end damage, and ultimately finishes 24th.
“I was in the way,” he says with a shrug.
After the race, Johnson immediately helicopters home to Charlotte.
There, he becomes a normal dad, taking the kids to school or ballet after his 5:30 a.m. run. He communicates frequently with his No. 48 team, his trainer, and his wife Chandra, who also owns SOCO, an art and photography gallery in Charlotte.
“I’m the third kid,” Johnson declares.
The next morning, he is taking out his frustrations on the road, running 8½ miles around Freedom Park at a brisk 6:35-mile pace.
Mentally, he says he’s excited for Boston.
“I plan to stay very focused on my heart rate, so I don’t blow up if the excitement gets the best of me.”
He won’t wear headphones so he can hear the fans.
“I’m all about the experience,” he says. “Julian Edelman said it is the greatest day in Boston.”
Johnson will have plenty of admirers in Boston, too.
Gatorade will make a donation to his foundation. Ally Financial, his sponsor, will give away racing swag at a cheering section at the Newton Firehouse.
Johnson, the man of a million lefthand turns, thinks making that first right turn will be no problem.
“I play golf, and my ball goes right every time,” he says. “So there’s this balancing force that the man up above has on me that’s trying to counteract all those lefts.”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com.