Jimmie Johnson will be crowned the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion in Las Vegas in a few weeks. The title will be Johnson's sixth and move him to within one championship of equaling the all time record held by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr.
With all of his success, Johnson has emerged as one of the most recognizable celebrities in NASCAR. Appearances on late night television and ESPN's Sports Center have made it to where Johnson can't go anywhere without being recognized but it wasn't always that way.
In 2000, Johnson began his NASCAR career by taking over the driver duties in the Nationwide Series for Herzog Racing. His journey to NASCAR racing, at the time, was not the conventional one.
Johnson had established himself as a multi-time National Champion on the Stadium Truck Series on the West Coast. It was his ability to drive over different terrain and challenging track layouts that gained him recognition from several NASCAR drivers that had competed with him on the dirt. However, the main stream NASCAR media were not familiar with this polite man from California.
In the early spring of 2000 at Rockingham Speedway, Johnson made one of his first entries for Herzog Racing. The young driver had not gotten his driver suits yet and was wearing one of the plain vanilla color generic suits that rookies typically wear. I happened to be in the Media Center that morning when he was introduced to the NASCAR beat reporters.
As I left the Center to do some interviews on the grid before the race, I exited just behind Johnson and his friend that was helping him out that day. As we moved toward his car just behind pit road, the crowds were quite heavy and Johnson moved through virtually unrecognized. As we passed by interviews being conducted with more established drivers, I couldn't help but overhear the conversation between him and his friend.
Johnson said as they walked by the interviews, "I'm going to have to get my name larger on my uniform. No one knows who I am." His friend replied to him, "Don't worry, they will as soon as they see you drive."
About that time, we reached a crossover section of pit road where cars are rolled out onto the grid. Being the good reporter that I am, I leaned into their conversation and said, "Don't worry Jimmie, I know who you are. I was in the Media Center."
We had a short conversation and I gained some thoughts from the young driver on his expectations for the day. After we were allowed to continue our trek to the starting grid, I wished him luck and moved on.
Many times I wished that I had that interview tape again but I didn't know what a gem that I had. I asked Johnson several years ago if he remembered but unfortunately, he didn't.
Now, nearly 13 years and six Championships later, Johnson has no problem with anyone not knowing his name. In fact, I assume he wouldn't even have to put a name on his uniform at all. What a difference a few years makes.
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