Jimmie Johnson picks a fight

Illustration by Ian Keltie

This story appears in the June 13, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

THESE ARE TENSE TIMES in the NASCAR garage. A springtime schedule that pairs tight-quarter tracks and rising temperatures has racing's biggest stars blowing off steam and bashing in bodywork.

The May race at Darlington began with NASCAR officials commanding behind closed doors that Juan Pablo Montoya and Ryan Newman bury a hatchet they'd sharpened one week earlier at Richmond when on-track contact ended off track with fists flying. The following night officials were back in session, this time with Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, who ended the Darlington race with a frightening Pit Road throwdown.

In the midst of it all, Jimmie Johnson sat chuckling and shaking his head. As he strolled into the media center, reporters bombarded the five-time champ with details of the grudge matches that were effectively stealing headlines from his march toward a sixth consecutive Sprint Cup title. Then the questions followed: Why didn't he ever get into fights? Why didn't Jimmie ever throw a haymaker or drop an F-bomb to defend his honor? Why didn't he do something, anything, to finally do away with being described so frequently as, well, dull?

Was it due to lessons learned from one-time mentor and golden boy Jeff Gordon? Or was it because of sponsor pressure, some sort of contract morality clause? Actually, the 35-year-old explained, it was nothing remotely that complicated and certainly nothing that grown-up. Instead, JJ recalled a moment from his childhood.

He was about 11, standing atop a berm inside a Southern California dirt bike track. Little Jimmie had been racing another kid for the local title when the two hammered into a corner and ended up in a heap. When Johnson tried to climb back on his bike, his rival shoved him down. "We end up in this wrestling match out there. We both got on our bikes -- I got up first -- and I shoved him down. When he got on the track I launched my bike toward the pit area and knocked him off his bike."

Johnson turned to the pits to soak up appreciation for his badass dirt bike moment. Instead, he saw his parents standing slack-jawed, visibly crushed by disappointment. "There's something from that moment that stuck with me. I didn't like how I felt after that. I was embarrassed of it. Still am."

Label his approach to racing, the one born in that moment, boring. Johnson will keep calling it smart. He understands why many racers carry chips on their shoulders, but his are reserved for carrying Cups.

Ryan McGee is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.