Johnson pleads for fire relief: 'We have to get involved'

HAMPTON, Ga. -- Jimmie Johnson will go through the motions this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

He'll strap on his helmet, slide into his driving gloves, climb into the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet and try his best to gain ground on Jeff Gordon in the Chase for the Nextel Cup.

More than 2,000 miles away, in fire-ravaged Southern California, families will continue filtering back "home" after wildfires forced them to evacuate days earlier. What many are finding isn't pretty -- houses burned to their foundations, once-pristine landscapes more resembling scenes out of war-torn Iraq, a lifetime of memories gone up in smoke.

"It's a scary time," Johnson said Friday.

The numbers are downright frightening: Wildfires reportedly have destroyed more than 1,600 homes, forcing the evacuation of more than half a million residents. How many lives were lost has yet to be determined. Officials say the financial toll is well above $1 billion, but that number most certainly will rise. As of Saturday afternoon, 14 of the blazes had been fully contained. Firefighters were still trying to gain control of nine others.

The news out of California hit Johnson particularly hard. He grew up in El Cajon, about 15 miles northeast of San Diego, one of the regions most impacted by the fires.

"I have friends and family that their lives are all impacted right now in some way, shape or form with what's going on," Johnson told reporters Friday. "Growing up out there, you grow accustomed to the dangers of fire. Even our schools have earthquake and fire prevention safety training once or twice a year. It's something you grow up with and you have to face living in Southern California."

It's one of the biggest disasters I think I've ever seen in this country. I'm so thankful for what Jimmie is doing.

-- Bruton Smith

The defending Nextel Cup champ said he understands what it's like to have to live through a fire season year after year, with the possibility that something catastrophic could happen always in the back of his mind. He said his parents on more than one occasion packed up the family and headed for safety upon hearing reports of a wildfire approaching the area.

"I lived on top of a hill, so there was always this fear of being surrounded [by fire] in my parents' house," Johnson said. "In the time I lived there, we fortunately did not have a fire burn through our neighborhood.

"But the most recent fires that took place out there came right through the area where I grew up, burned down many homes on the block I grew up on, but for whatever reason, the fire leapfrogged the home I grew up in and got the surrounding homes."

That's why Johnson is getting involved. He and team owner Rick Hendrick will donate the No. 48's winnings in Sunday's Pep Boys Auto 500 to the American Red Cross. Johnson's Chevy is carrying a 1-800-RED CROSS decal on its decklid in a show of support.

Friday's announcement, in fact, started an avalanche of generosity out of Atlanta Motor Speedway. Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse decided to match Johnson's winnings.

Bruton Smith, chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc. and Sonic Automotive Inc., decided to do the same, then declared that NASCAR executive Jim France had told him he, too, would follow suit.

Johnson collected $251,686 in the October 2006 race at Atlanta, so this weekend promises to be a huge windfall for the Red Cross -- and the folks who lost their homes in Southern California.

Like Johnson, Hendrick and Smith have a personal stake in this tragedy.

Hendrick operates 10 auto dealerships in California. He said he has a number of employees who have been directly impacted by the wildfires.

"It doesn't look like any of our folks will lose their homes, so we're lucky," Hendrick said. "Not everyone is so fortunate."

Smith's work force wasn't so lucky. He said some of his 6,000 employees in California did lose their homes.

"It's one of the biggest disasters I think I've ever seen in this country," Smith said. "I'm so thankful for what Jimmie is doing."

With just four races remaining in the 2007 Cup season, Johnson trails Hendrick Motorsports teammate Gordon by 53 points. But his mind clearly wasn't in Atlanta on Friday.

"I can't believe it's burned so far into the city, and it's so near, and so many fires, and so much devastation," he said.
"If we don't get involved and help our fellow Americans, we're going to have a large part of our society in dire straits. This is really impacting a lot of people. We have to get involved."

Johnson said that his foundation's Web site -- JimmieJohnsonFoundation.com -- is accepting donations for the Red Cross and that the 85 Lowe's stores in California are serving as official Red Cross cash donation sites.

"Every cent is going to help," Johnson said. "Every cent is going to matter."

Joe Breeze is a motorsports editor at ESPN.com. He can be reached at Joe.M.Breeze@espn3.com.