July 16, 2012  |   By John Oreovicz

Brickyard Super Weekend Profile: Jimmie Johnson

If the prototypical NASCAR driver of the past hailed from the South and had roots in the moonshine industry, the modern-day blueprint is Jimmie Johnson.

The 36-year old from El Cajon, California says Rick Mears is his hero and admits that his first dream was to race in the Indianapolis 500. But after cutting his racing teeth in off-road racing like Mears, Johnson beat a fast track to stock car competition and he has established himself as the top driver in NASCAR’s “Chase” era.

Johnson is often viewed as a protégé of NASCAR star Jeff Gordon, who is actually the co-owner of the #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet that Johnson drives in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Since 2001, Johnson has driven the #48 car to 57 race wins and five consecutive Sprint Cup championships from 2006-10.

Johnson and his longtime crew chief Chad Knaus have been particularly effective at mastering NASCAR’s “Chase” playoff format. Their formula has been to use races leading into the Chase as test sessions to perfect their car setups for the events that count at the end of the year. In several of his championship campaigns, Johnson got off to a strong start in the Chase that allowed him to run consistently for points down the stretch while his opponents had to resort to desperate tactics in search of wins.

Johnson has found repeated success at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He’s a three-time winner of the Brickyard 400 (2006, ’08 and ’09), and this year he also considered competing in the inaugural Grand-Am Rolex Series race in a GAINSCO Racing entry.

“It’s such a tough race,” Johnson said of the Brickyard 400. “There are only a couple tracks on our schedule that, when you walk into the track, you feel the history of the facility. It’s argued back and forth whether Daytona or Indianapolis is more prestigious and important and it’s tough for me to pick one, but they’re both very special. I’m very fortunate to have won both of them.

“For me, it’s kind of a draw between the two,” he added. “I grew up in an IndyCar household and didn’t know much about stock car racing and always dreamed of racing in the Indy 500. But from a driver’s standpoint, a driver is a lot more responsible for the results and the performance at Indy than you are at Daytona. We do put a little bit more effort into the Brickyard and start earlier. Instead of a couple of weeks out, it’s a month or two months out, just massaging the car. The engine shop usually shows up with a little bit of something new for us, with a little bit more power, typically. And it really pays off with having those long straightaways.”