Jimmie Johnson: Breaking NASCAR Records

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Chuck Burton / AP

Jimmie Johnson awaits the start of the NASCAR Ford 400 Sprint Cup at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Florida, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2009

On Nov. 22, NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson cruised into the history books. With his fifth-place finish in the Ford 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway, Johnson clinched the top spot in The Chase, NASCAR's ten-race playoff season that crowns the overall Sprint Cup champion. Johnson, 34, became the first racer in NASCAR history to win four straight titles in its top circuit, a feat that fuels the inevitable question: is this guy the greatest racer of all-time? Johnson took a victory lap in New York City, and sat down with TIME to talk about his training regimen, his off-track driving habits, and the perception that he's way too boring.

How hard was it to win four straight Sprint Cup championships?
Extremely hard. The competition in today's world of racing is so tough. The cars are more equal than they've ever been. The competition, the amount of teams, and just every aspect of it is so difficult. I'm just as amazed as everyone else.

You are part of the Hendrick racing team, whose drivers finished in the top three spots in the NASCAR standings this year. Hendrick has more resources than any other team, and has been called the New York Yankees of racing. Do you feel you get the same kind of resentment that many fans feel towards the "big guys" like the Yankees who are able to outspend the competition?
Not necessarily. Our fan base really respects what we've done as an organization. They respect Rick Hendrick. If [resentment] is a problem, we love it. It means we're doing our jobs.

Has the recession affected your team?
Without a doubt, it has affected all teams. We have a long-term relationship with General Motors, and their restructuring certainly effected our organization. Kellogg's is not coming back to [sponsor] our team. We've had a bunch of smaller sponsors reduce what they're doing. But it's nice to see [the economy] coming back. Lowes [sponsor of Johnson's car] re-signed with us recently to extend our relationship. I think that shows how big a tool our sport is for the marketing plans of corporate America.

Are you greatest driver of all time?
That's not for me to answer. I still have a lot of racing left. It's a little premature to worry about that.

You've been racing on the top circuit for eight years now. How long do you see yourself doing this?
I don't have a year, or an age that I'm focused on. Right now, I want to think it can go on forever. But at some point, I'm sure the schedule will catch up, and the fire will start to go out. Some can guys step out, some guys can't. We've all watched Brett Favre and the last few years of his career. Mark Martin, my teammate, is one of those guys. He's tried retiring since 2004, and he's still in there going strong [Martin, 50, finished second to Johnson in the Cup standings this season].

People are often surprised by the amount of physical training racers do. What's your regimen?
There's a very extensive training program. [NASCAR races] are four to five hours in length. The g-forces take a lot out of you. I lift weights four times a week, usually run five days a week. There's ab work, core-based work. You need your lungs for endurance. And the more you muscle mass you have on you during an impact is real important.

A recent Sports Illustrated story mentioned that you get carsick when you're not driving. Why?
There's something about the inputs of the vehicle—the brakes, the gas, the turning—that if I'm not doing it, it throws off my equilibrium.

So you can't just ride shotgun and relax?
No. And my wife is way too conservative a driver. So when we're at home, I've got to drive.

Do you ever get road rage?
I do find it amusing when somebody cuts me off, makes an aggressive move on me in a car. I'm like, 'do you have any idea what I do for a living? Why?' But I find myself being a little impatient if I'm not driving past other people. I don't need to break the speed limit. But if I'm not passing other vehicles on the interstate, I get a little irritated.

How many speeding tickets have you gotten?
Never had one.

Critics complain that you are boring. One racetrack executive said that "if Jimmie would just get out of his car and go over and slap somebody one time, that would help." How do you respond to this?
There are people who tune in and like to watch [the NFL's] Chad Ochocinco do his thing, and there are people who get absolutely irritated by that. I have a very strong fan base that respects the way I handle things. I can't change who I am. That would be a disservice to myself.

So you're not going to come out and slap someone?
I don't plan to. But everybody has a snapping point.

Do you think you're bland?
Far form it far from it. I think in today's world, everybody wants to watch a train wreck. I guess I'm not that person. But I have a great personality and plenty of friends and have plenty of fun.

Do you like watching guys like Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco? Do you find them entertaining?
I'm about the Jerry Rices. Catch the ball, make a touchdown, drop the ball in the end zone, head back to the huddle and focus on doing your job again. I guess what we do is entertaining. But I don't have the mind that thinks, 'wow, I need to do this celebration.' It's just not what I do.