Johnson on verge of matching boyhood idol Yarborough's record run

Jimmie Johnson was maybe 8 years old, already racing dirt bikes far and wide, when his father stopped the family's battered van at a hamburger place somewhere in Oklahoma.

This was the first Hardee's restaurant little Jimmie had ever been to. The chain didn't reach as far west as his home region, southern California.

But he had seen that name in big red letters before.

"My dad intended to grab a burger," Johnson recalled Tuesday. "I thought I was going to see Cale Yarborough."

Surely Jimmie's hero must be there, he reasoned.

Jimmie was already watching NASCAR on television, and Yarborough "was my guy." And Yarborough's car of the time had "Hardee's" painted on the quarter panels.

"When I walked in, I didn't see a picture of him," Johnson said, disappointment still somehow in his voice. "I didn't see any signs. I didn't see a transporter. I was wondering where his race car was."

When the concept of sponsorship was explained to Jimmie, "at that point I guess I understood the marketing of NASCAR," he said. "But I was disappointed that I didn't get to see him."

By then, Yarborough was already several years past setting the record -- three consecutive Cup championships, 1976-78 -- Johnson is closing in on now.

In recent years, it's been Cale Yarborough watching Jimmie Johnson on TV, with great admiration and identification.

"I've been watching him since he first came on the scene," Yarborough said by phone Tuesday from his 4,000-acre farm near the hamlet of Sardis, S.C.

Even in Johnson's early years, when he was narrowly missing championships, "I knew his day was coming," Yarborough said.

As for the record, "If somebody ties it, Jimmie's the man who ought to do it."

That is, a man as relentless as Yarborough on the racetrack.

"I can see a lot of myself in Jimmie," Yarborough had said on a NASCAR teleconference Monday.

"Cale was one of the most tenacious drivers NASCAR has ever had," said Jim Hunter, NASCAR's vice president for corporate communications, who saw Yarborough race in his prime. "He seemed to be able to take a car that wasn't handling very well and make the most of it, come out with a better finish than what the car might be capable of.

"That's a trait that both he and Jimmie seem to share."

Yarborough learned never to panic in a car kicking sideways, or any which way, on the dirt tracks of the Carolinas. Johnson learned the same on the off-road courses of California and Arizona.

Take Atlanta, coming up Sunday. It's a wide, fast track that gets slippery quickly in the autumn sun, and the new car's chassis is maddening to tune for that.

"I think the result will be a lot of cars slipping and sliding," Johnson said. And therefore, "I'm excited about it, and I think we're going to be in good shape."

Funny how a little kid racing motorcycles in the deserts on one side of the country could instinctively identify with a hero from the other side, off the farmlands of South Carolina, toughened for NASCAR by the hellacious hitting of Southern football. (At 18, Yarborough quit a scholarship to Clemson as a fullback to race full time, and he was warned by legendary coach Frank Howard, "Boy, you'll starve to death.")

Yarborough then, like Johnson now, was a shut-up-and-drive kind of guy. He neither knew nor cared much about mechanical matters, so he never argued with his team owner during the three-peat, the mechanical wizard Junior Johnson, about what they ought to do to a car on pit stops.

This, in contrast to Junior's drivers before and after Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip, who both spent much time arguing with Junior about what ought to be done to their cars.

Jimmie Johnson rarely argues on the radio with his domineering crew chief, Chad Knaus, who calls every detail of every adjustment in every race.

"I never was one to do much calculating," Yarborough said. "I went all-out on every lap I raced in my whole career."

Yarborough could, and Johnson can, improvise on a split-second's notice.

Tenacity takes fuel -- human endurance that keeps the reflexes lightning-quick, even late in races, late in seasons.

For the 140-degree temperatures in fire suits, inside cars that had no power steering and no air-conditioning systems for helmets, Yarborough got his conditioning from farm work.

Wielding a post-hole digger or chain saw or operating a bulldozer, "I worked outside every day I wasn't at the racetrack," he recalled Tuesday.

Johnson, at 33, does it all the modern way: "I spend my three days in the gym, and I try to get at least three 60-minute cardio sessions in, on a bike or on foot..."

But Johnson can't imagine the kind of strength and conditioning it took for Yarborough to drive the cars he drove.

"I mean, those guys were true studs," Johnson said. "Not only do I think of no air conditioning, but the seats they were sitting in. They didn't have any headrests. The helmets were heavy. They called them fireproof suits, but I doubt they really were. Those guys were true men."

I mean, those guys were true studs. Not only do I think of no air conditioning, but the seats they were sitting in. They didn't have any headrests. The helmets were heavy. They called them fireproof suits, but I doubt they really were. Those guys were true men.

-- Jimmie Johnson

Richard Petty was one of them, and though he won seven championships -- still the record, but later tied by the late Dale Earnhardt -- Petty never won three in a row.

"They're looking at a three-peat deal now," Petty said the other day, seeming a bit annoyed about the hoopla when I asked. "But if you look at Earnhardt's and my records, we won four out of five championships. We'd win two, lose one and then win two more."

Correct. Petty won in 1971 and '72, lost in '73, and won in '74 and '75. Earnhardt won in '90 and '91, lost in '92, then won in '93 and '94.

"As far as it lasting 30 years," Yarborough said, "I just wonder how come it took so long for somebody to win three in a row."

Yarborough himself has "no idea. Thinking back with Petty, Earnhardt and [Jeff] Gordon, you would think some of those guys would have put three together in those 30 years."

"Who knows?" Petty said. "When things are on your side, and circumstances come your way, then you take advantage of it."

"Circumstances" has always been Petty's word for the key ingredient in the perfect storms that make championships: the superb team, the crew chief and driver at their peaks, and most of all the swirl of luck and charmed existence, the wrecks you dodge when others don't ... the circumstances.

But maybe there's one more, the indefatigable will to fight the circumstances, the absolute tenacity in the nature of the driver.

Maybe it's taken 30 years because there's been no one quite like Cale Yarborough, the little South Carolina bulldog, in sheer relentlessness, until the California kid who came to worship him at the Hardee's in Oklahoma.

Reluctant as Johnson has been to speak of what is not a lock yet, I've been asking him about the record in a kind of code.

Sunday night at Martinsville, Va., after his dominating win that vaulted him 149 points ahead of Greg Biffle and 152 ahead of Jeff Burton -- his nearest competitors -- I asked, "Is it time to start asking you about Cale yet?"

He smiled faintly, the awe of Cale Yarborough somehow still on his face.

"It's getting closer," he said. "I'm going to have to answer those questions one of these days, aren't I?"

The hero Johnson had, who admires Johnson so much now, spoke happily for both of them.

"The handwriting's on the wall now," Yarborough said. "It's gonna happen."

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.