The Dominant 20: Jimmie Johnson, from off-road to out of this world

Who'd have predicted Jimmie Johnson would go from off-road racer to NASCAR superstar? Jeff Gordon, for one. Luckily, ESPN's Ryan McGee was smart enough to listen. Christian Lantry

This story on No. 4 athlete Jimmie Johnson appears in ESPN The Magazine's April 2 Dominant 20 Anniversary Issue. Subscribe today!

IT WAS DECEMBER 2001, and the call that came from The Mag was the same I had answered the previous three years. "Hey, racing guy, who should be our motor-sports representative for our NEXT Issue?" I said Jimmie Johnson. My editor said, "Who?"

Sounds crazy now, right? This is the guy who has equaled what was considered one of NASCAR's most unreachable records, winning his seventh Cup series title to stand alongside Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. To get there, he matched another thought-to-be-untouchable mark, Cale Yarborough's three consecutive Cup titles ... then extended that streak to five. On the career victories list, he has passed Earnhardt and reached Yarborough, and, sitting on 83 wins at the age of 42, he has a legit shot to join Petty (200 wins) and David Pearson (105 wins) as drivers with triple-digit trophies. And those two legends each spent more than a decade running a NASCAR schedule packed with as many as 62 races in a season.

Back in December 2001, none of those benchmarks seemed within reach for any racer besides Jeff Gordon, who had just won his fourth Cup in seven years and had his face splashed on every printable surface from Corn Flakes boxes to the National Enquirer. The entire sport was combing through every NASCAR team for the next Gordon. So were we. Ryan Newman and Kevin Harvick, heck, even Travis Kvapil and Scott Riggs -- the list of NEXT candidates was long and littered with impressive stats from guys with oval pedigrees. Johnson was not on that list.

At the time, Johnson had run two full seasons in NASCAR's Busch (now Xfinity) Series, winning only one race and placing 10th and eighth in the standings. Before that, he ran in the Midwestern bunkhouse stampede known as ASA, joining that series with exactly zero stock car racing experience. His background was in dirt. Not short-track dirt but rocky desert dirt, racing off-road trucks from Baja to Vegas.

"I don't blame your bosses for doubting you because, honestly, it doesn't make a whole hell of a lot of sense, right?" Johnson says now. "My entire background had been to go as fast as possible in a straight line, then jump off of stuff. If there was a turn, whatever, just turn, then start hitting bumps and jump again. Now it was 'How do you corner? How does your machine handle in those corners? Oh, by the way, it's a car and it's all on asphalt.' That's not normally how someone gets to Daytona."

Or into ESPN The Magazine, and certainly not on the same pages with Brian Urlacher and Paul Pierce as future can't-
miss pillars of sport. "So why this Jimmy, er, Jimmie Johnson guy?" asked my editors, anxious to make a decision and book a photo shoot. "Yeah," Johnson says, remembering his surprise when that session was booked. "Why me?"

Why? Because of that guy on the cereal boxes. In fall 2000 at Dover International Speedway, Gordon grabbed me in the garage to sing the praises of the racer he'd personally handpicked to pilot the new Cup series team he would co-own with boss Rick Hendrick. It was Johnson. My reaction was the same one my bosses would echo a year later. Johnson? The guy who was just racing pickup trucks in high school football stadiums? Didn't he just not win a championship in ASA? And didn't he just damn near knock the entire fence out of Turn 1 at Watkins Glen?

"Yep, that's the guy," Gordon confirmed, laughing, seemingly confident in his insanity. But Gordon had watched Johnson and seen something, the stuff that only real racers can see. He had followed Johnson around the track in race conditions and watched the kid pilot an underfunded, undermanned ride to lap times it shouldn't have been able to reach. Gordon saw a master computer at work as Johnson took a race car he had no handle on and wrangled it into submission. In Johnson he saw that most coveted of racing skills. He saw car control. "Trust me. When you do your next NEXT, he should be your guy."

So that's what I told my editor. He said, "No one knows who he is, and he hasn't won s---." I replied, "I don't really know who he is either, and yes, he hasn't won s---, but all I know is that Jeff Gordon won't shut up about him." Sold. Photo session booked. Words filed.

"My entire career, the opportunities I've received were from people who saw something in me even when I was thinking, 'Really?' " Johnson says. "From [Busch team owners] the Herzogs to Rick Hendrick and Jeff, most people were focused on those other guys, the ones with more familiar backgrounds and way more hype. Jeff was out there telling people about me when no one else was. I've worked every day to try and make him look smart."

And, in turn, make The Mag look smarter.

Ryan McGee's main beats have been racing and college football, but he has also stalked Peyton Manning, run down Usain Bolt and pissed off Cliff Lee. His Mag debut, on Michael Andretti, was for our prototype in 1996.