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Johnson never tires of the Chase

Jimmie Johnson, who has won five straight Cup championships, will be back in New Hampshire Sunday to defend his Lenox 301 crown. Jimmie Johnson, who has won five straight Cup championships, will be back in New Hampshire Sunday to defend his Lenox 301 crown. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / July 14, 2011

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His wife, Chandra, may have been home in North Carolina ready to have their first child, but Jimmie Johnson was at New Hampshire Motor Speedway last June 27, behind the wheel of his No. 48 Chevrolet, ready to have a cow.

Johnson became enraged with seven laps remaining in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301 when Kurt Busch executed a bump-and-run in Turn 4 to knock Johnson out of the lead.

Normally a mild-mannered fellow who is largely respectful of his peers, but gives as good as he gets when it’s called for, Johnson had no doubt what he was going to do once he caught up to Busch’s rear bumper.

“I was going to wreck his [expletive],’’ Johnson said at the time.

But the reigning four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion regained his composure in the 30 seconds or so it took him to turn a lap. Once he did catch up to Busch, Johnson returned the favor.

“I was just caught off guard with the bump-and-run,’’ said Johnson, who went on to win the race, marking his third triumph at Loudon, N.H., and fifth overall of the season. It propelled Johnson to the Chase for the Championship and an unprecedented fifth straight Cup title, overcoming a 15-point deficit to Denny Hamlin in the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“After it took place and I gathered the car back up and started reeling him in, then in a couple of laps I realized it was just a bump-and-run and once I got to him, repaid the favor, and kind of went on and got our win,’’ Johnson recalled during a telephone conversation on Tuesday.

“At the time, right or wrong, if fans like it or not, I’m just not a guy that’s going to go in there and move someone out of the way. Just not the way I was raised to race and it’s not the way I have had success in the sport. I race people with respect on the track and try to drive on by them.

“It changes when someone drives in there, especially on corner entry, and gets into you and shoves you out of the way. You go back and handle it how you see fit. At first, I was really upset over it . . . but I came back down to where I should be and just raced him the same way he raced me.’’

For as many championships as he’s won, it’s amazing that Johnson has managed to successfully navigate the minefields of a 36-race season. He has put a stranglehold on the sport largely without ruffling any feathers among his peers.

“In my personal life, I don’t have people that I hate, or people that hate me,’’ Johnson said. “There’s a way we all carry ourselves. Sometimes, the persona and the personality is different, job vs. personal life. But for me, I am who I am and I’ve got a great group of friends around me who I respect and enjoy on the track, and I just kind of carry myself the same way.’’

Johnson’s perspective and approach to the demands of his job were altered July 7, 2010, when he became a first-time father.

“It’s changed me dramatically. It’s been off the charts with emotion and happiness,’’ Johnson said. “You always imagine what it’s going to be like and then you’re child’s born and there’s so much more that you could’ve ever hoped or dreamed of.

“It has changed me in so many ways, making me a better person and making me lead by example in every situation: who I am, what I am, what I care for, what I stand for, so that I can put these values in my kids. It has changed me dramatically off the track.’’

But when he’s on it? Not as much.

“When I put that helmet on, it’s my job,’’ Johnson said. “It doesn’t change what I do in the race car, but I can say when I leave for sponsor events or even leave for a race weekend and my family is not with me, that part [stinks]. That’s really, really tough. When the helmet’s on, the helmet’s on.’’

And it’s go time. But Johnson did share some special moments with daughter Genevieve last year, holding her in his arms when he was received in Victory Lane at Dover in September. It was the first time Johnson, his wife, and their daughter were photographed together following a win.

“I have a photo of her as an infant that’s sitting on my desk right now,’’ said Johnson. “That’s her, but it’s not. She’s so different now.’’

Asked if his daughter had any inkling what her dad does for a living, Johnson laughed and said, “No, I don’t believe so. She loves the pre-race thing and all the action. She loves to explore and see what it is. She loves my firesuit and loves to scratch at all the logos that are on it.

“She can pick me out on TV when I’m on TV doing an interview. She knows who I am and says, ‘Dad!’ and stuff like that. But I don’t think she understands the whole competition and race part of it, yet.’’

Johnson’s triumph at Dover was his only victory in last year’s Chase. Apart from his record streak of dominance, the fifth championship set itself apart because 1. Johnson did it as a first-time father and 2. he had to come from behind to capture the title in the last race of the season.

“Standing there on the stage it had a different meaning to it, for sure, to share that with my family,’’ he said. “I was so proud. I’ve got another photo here on my desk of me standing on the stage with Channy and Genevieve, so yes [it was special].

“But in the car, in the heat of the battle, with all that was going on, man, I was just worried about winning. There was more going on than me thinking, ‘Man, I’m doing this for my daughter,’ or any of that. After the fact, when I was standing there on the stage getting photos taken, I was like, ‘I’m going to have this photo forever.’ ’’

What made last year’s finale even more gratifying was the fact it was the first time in Johnson’s career that he truly had to pursue the championship.

“To come from behind was a cool experience in general,’’ Johnson said. “Obviously, to have it turn out like it did was amazing, but it was a different mental approach I had vs. previous years. I mean, I wasn’t protecting anything. It was simple, all I had to do was go down there and run as well as I could.’’

Surprisingly, Johnson found it to be one of the least stressful championship weeks of his career.

“I had more fun than I did any other year, because the other years I’d been down there protecting something,’’ he said. “It’s amazing the way your mind works: When you’re protecting, you’re scared of everything; when you’re chasing, you don’t care about anything. So it was a much different experience.’’

When he arrives at NHMS for Sunday’s Lenox Industrial Tools 301, Johnson will be fifth in points, 19 astern of leader Kyle Busch, winner of last week’s inaugural Cup race at Kentucky. Johnson finished third in that race, bumping him from sixth to fifth in points.

“I want to be leading the points,’’ Johnson said. “Every week that I can lead the points, I think that makes myself stronger and the team stronger. Even if it’s not the Chase, there is pressure that exists when you lead the points and I want to be in that position every weekend.

“I want my team to be in it, because the more time we’re there, the more comfortable we’ll become with it and, hopefully, not make mistakes in the future.’’

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.