DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Jimmie Johnson ignores the phone call, but the look on his face suggests he shouldn’t.

The expression is part confusion, part concern. In moments like this, when Johnson’s mind begins to buffer toward the download of an answer he seeks, his face tends to stiffen to a distant blank stare, eyes narrowed and aimed toward the horizon, beyond the minutia directly before him.

He is driving a black Chevy Suburban on Florida Highway 836, westbound from South Beach toward Miami International Airport, where he’ll hang a sweeping left and grab Highway 826 south to Homestead.

In three days he will weave and dart and dash — and ultimately sprint — a blue Chevy SS straight to the peak of NASCAR’s Mount Rushmore.

For now, he looks very worried.

It is dark outside. Traffic is bad. As he drives, Johnson participates in a Facebook Live chat, answering questions about his life and its path, his innate and developed passions, things like the outdoors and the arts and his family.

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The buildup to Sunday’s Cup race feels “bigger than usual” because NASCAR has spent the offseason trying to rescue and revive a sport that longs to recapture the glory of not-so-long-ago days.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. returns at Daytona after letting his brain heal from multiple concussions — and after undergoing a different sort of rehabilitation for his psyche.

The phone rings again. This time Johnson snatches it up and holds it before him, facing outward, revealing the caller’s identity to an expanding Facebook viewing audience. It’s his boss, NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick, winner of 12 Cup championships and a newly minted NASCAR Hall of Famer.

Johnson hopes aloud that no one tattles on him.

On he drives. Rush hour. Throttle-brake-throttle-brake. He is detailing juice preferences and smoothie recipes and tales from the carpool line.

While idling in gridlock, a text buzzes in.

“I’m watching you.”

Unbeknownst to Johnson, Hendrick is watching all of this unfold, in real time. He sees Johnson ignore his calls. No one ignores Rick Hendrick’s calls, certainly not his drivers. Hendrick is quite amused. And with this revelation, so is Johnson.

He erupts in laughter. His car full of passengers cackles.

“I just wanted to see what he’d do if I called in the middle of it,” Hendrick says. “You know it happens all the time, but you don’t usually get to watch someone look down at their phone and send you to voicemail.

“Jimmie is such a good guy that’s it’s almost impossible to get one over on him. He shows up when he says he’s going to show up. You call him, he calls you back. You ask him to do something, he does it.

“There aren’t a lot of opportunities to give him a hard time, so I try to take advantage when he leaves me an opening. Seeing his face when he checked that text was just priceless.”

Johnson still hasn’t heard the end of it.

“He never ceases to surprise me, what he’s into or doing,” Johnson says. “Who would ever think he’s watching Facebook Live? He’s so well-mannered, such an amazing businessman, so it’s easy to be serious with him. But deep down he’s one of the biggest kids I know. He’s a knucklehead.

“That’s the part I get to see that many don’t see. That’s a great privilege. There were a couple more times I saw him after that Facebook Live [scenario], and he’d just start laughing [and saying,] ‘I can’t believe you wouldn’t take my call!’ He’d tell everybody around him.”

Three days after that Johnson-Hendrick exchange in November, in the hours before he would pass 39 competitors in 400 miles to pen a shocking new chapter to his championship legacy, Johnson stands outside his motor home in the Florida sunshine and retells the Hendrick call-screening story to a group of friends and coworkers.

He chuckles, and pauses midsentence: “Thank God I answered his call 15 years ago.”

In 2001, Hendrick and Jeff Gordon called upon Johnson to front a Winston Cup startup band. Gordon had himself judged Johnson’s performance in the arena, and repeated to Hendrick what Hendrick’s son, Ricky, had said for years — the young shoe was ready to be a big-stage headliner.

This was more than a karaoke lounge drink slinger, and Gordon knew it. This was like heading down to the Gulch for a beer and happening upon Chris Stapleton at the Station Inn.

The talent was obvious. It deserved a bigger platform.

“Jimmie is like Bob Dylan, man, always delivering greatness,” says singer Darius Rucker, a friend of Johnson’s. “Even when Jimmie is not on top, he is still giving everybody what they want — even if they don’t know they want it.”

Part of the Hendrick/Gordon offer was the chance to race Gordon’s championship-tested cars. So Johnson didn’t have to write any songs, play any instruments or even have his own voice yet.

He just had to pick up the microphone and sing.

The more he sang, the more he wrote. And the more he sang and the more he wrote, the more he found his own voice.

It is a once-in-a-generation voice.

“In our era? He’s the best we’ve ever seen,” says Clint Bowyer, one of Johnson’s competitors in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. “It’s incredible what he’s established. From the second he and [crew chief] Chad Knaus teamed up, it’s been magic.”

It is Stapleton with Justin Timberlake, on the grandest stage at the Grammys, stopping a room full of eye-roll-seen-it-before peers in its tracks with a shot of “Tennessee Whiskey.” You can’t help but marvel at it.

“And it could be argued he’s the best the sport’s ever seen,” Bowyer continues. “That’s a legitimate argument. It’s Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson. That’s it.”

Johnson shakes his head at the notion that he’s the best ever. It’s difficult for him to consider the thought. Comparing sporting eras is like comparing musical eras — as the tools change, the rules change.

The songs that were great then are still great now, forever appreciated. They are copyrights. But as production philosophies changed, differences in sonic preferences followed suit. Ultimately, the business evolved.

Some will say for the better. Some won’t.

It’s the same with race cars. Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison are forever appreciated. They are Hall of Fame drivers. They are pioneers. They are copyrights. But the way they produced championships and the way Johnson produced championships aren’t the same. The way NASCAR championships are produced changed, and the business evolved.

Some with say for the better. Some won’t.

“In Richard Petty’s era, racing on dirt, and more than once a week, they built their own cars with about three guys,” Bowyer said. “Jimmie Johnson has 500 guys. So it’s hard to judge and gauge places in history for anybody, no matter how great they are.

“But the ride Jimmie’s on, damn! And listen, you can’t hate the guy. It makes me laugh when fans are like, ‘Screw Jimmie Johnson!’ What? Trust me, we all want to hate him because he kicks our asses. But you just can’t.”

Truth told, it’s miraculous that Johnson made it. If he’d come along in 2009 rather than 1999, it’s a real possibility he may not have.

“I have the chance to speak to the rookies now, and I tell them I’m thankful I’m not in your generation,” Johnson says. “I wouldn’t have made it.”

Chevrolet gave Johnson credibility with race teams, even when he says he didn’t deserve it. They aligned him with the Busch Series (now Xfinity) team Herzog Motorsports, whose thrifty spending habits, excellent tutelage and tremendous patience aligned perfectly with Johnson’s asphalt-racing learning curve.

“Based just on performance, I didn’t stand out far enough. Just didn’t,” Johnson continues. “If I’d have had to stand out based only on my own merit, my own talent, I don’t think I’d have made it. I truly don’t.”

Looking back now, seated in the bar of a downtown Charlotte restaurant, sipping a local brew through the windbreaker mustache connected to the beard he grew and tested and cured (and only rarely manicured) on the crystal slopes of Colorado all winter, Johnson still can’t believe the dirt road from East County led to the deepest pages on NASCAR’s history book.

“It’s crazy that I’m here,” he says. “I’ve always just followed my heart, through it all. And it worked out to be the greatest situation of all time.”

His childhood buddies can’t believe it, either, nor can any of the myriad friends he’s developed along the way. No one saw this coming.

“Seven? At the top of NASCAR? Never,” says Johnson’s childhood buddy, Billy Johnston.

Another longtime friend, Chris Tucker, notes that in retrospect it’s easy to see that the puzzle pieces of Johnson’s life all matched up to this. The off-road background and humble upbringing made him adaptable and appreciative. So of course Hendrick would hire him and Lowe’s Home Improvement would sponsor him.

“There’s no clear path for this coming from El Cajon [California], I can promise you,” Tucker says. “He’s Tom Brady — the sixth-round draft pick and then some. Back in high school, Jimmie might not be the guy you would have identified to attain this level of success. But I’m sure glad it was him. No one else would have handled it all the way he has.”

When Johnson graduated from Granite Hills High School, he and a friend started a car detailing business. Every day after work, Johnston would stop by and hang out.

“Johnson would always be on the phone, and our other buddy would be detailing the cars — I don’t think Johnson ever washed a single car,” Johnston says. “He probably still hasn’t ever washed a car. He was on the phone trying to pave the road to where he is today.”

Granted, there was always interest. Chevrolet was invested early on, guys like Herb Fishel, who put Johnson in off-road trucks and buggies as a teenager. When he was about 16, Johnson began testing Chevy’s off-road trucks for his hero, driver Rick Johnson.

On the drive from his home in El Cajon to the first test session, Jimmie Johnson realized he had an issue — his ride was a Ford Ranger. Upon arrival, he tried to park it out of sight. He failed. The racing program manager eventually saw his truck, and asked whose it was.

“Mine,” Johnson laughs. “I told him, ‘I just got my license, man!'”

Within a week, Johnson was told to head to the Chevy dealer. There was a program S-10 with his name on it. By 1995 he was racing those off-road trucks, but Chevy didn’t have the budget to give him what’s called a “pre-runner,” a truck used by off-road racers to pretest, survey and learn the desert courses they would soon race. These pre-runs lasted for weeks.

Without a test truck to run, Johnson simply used those program trucks. He wore them out, spending three weeks running full-bore through the desert and then hopping on Interstate 10 to drive home to El Cajon. Once, he and the boys turned a pre-run into a camping trip, and as the afternoon reached the nighttime, they saw another friend, a guy named Slip, on a lover’s stroll down the beach.

Johnson hopped in, hollered at Slip, fired up the S-10, and proceeded to launch it off a berm — straight into the Pacific Ocean. The tide had come in since the last time they jumped it. The truck bottomed out, launching it onto its nose upon landing. The grill and the radiator were blown out of it. Substantial repair was required just to get it home. More repair was required to return it to Chevy.

Told the story, Chevy Racing executive Terry Dolan laughed:

“I think he paid us back, and then some.”

Oftentimes, chapters that comprise legend include near misses.

Johnson’s story is no different.

In 2000 and 2001, he’d done well enough in Herzog’s equipment to garner interest from some of NASCAR’s marquee programs.

He said his former Busch Series sponsor, ALLTEL Wireless, was planning to leave Herzog and head to Penske Racing. ALLTEL’s founding family, the Fords, asked Johnson if he’d like an endorsement with team owner Roger Penske. Johnson declined.

“That was just the start of a bunch of really weird decisions I made,” he says with a laugh.

Johnson says his heart was loyal to the Herzogs and Chevrolet, to reciprocate their belief in him. Dolan detailed that loyalty well.

In the late 90s, Dolan said, Johnson was driving an ARCA car at Daytona, and Chevy helped with minimal funding and decals on the machine. At a banquet soon thereafter, Johnson approached Dolan with a panoramic picture of the car, a handshake and a promise: “I promise you someday I’ll make Chevy really proud.”

Johnson’s plan all along was to ascend to Cup with Herzog Motorsports. That was also the team’s plan, but it never materialized. So Johnson began working the phones. He said he talked to Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs at every opportunity, wearing the grass bare around Johnson’s Lake Norman home, in an effort to drive the No. 20 Rockwell Automation car.

At the same time, the rumor began to circulate that the Busch Series’ premiere organization in that era, ppc Racing, a powerhouse multicar group with drivers Jeff Green and Jason Keller, wanted to expand to three teams. They contacted Johnson.

That was a hell of an opportunity. Green would win the 2000 series championship by more than 600 points. Johnson had several conversations with former ppc Racing crew chief Steve Addington.

“He calls me like, bro, you interested?” Johnson says now with a laugh. “Really? I’m unemployed, man! Hell yes, I’m interested!”

All of those opportunities were trumped by a specific Cup Series opportunity. The top.

Johnson’s spotter at Herzog, Lorin Ranier, had a long history in NASCAR. His father was a team owner who fielded cars for the likes of Davey Allison and Tony Stewart. At the end of the 2000 season, Ranier headed for a job at Chip Ganassi Racing and informed Johnson of an opportunity — a startup Cup program, the No. 01 Cingular Dodge Intrepid.

Johnson recalls it like this:

A meeting was called at Concord Regional Airport near Charlotte. At the table are Johnson, Ranier and part-owner Felix Sabates. Ganassi’s plane lands. In he walks, briefcase in hand. The foursome chats for 10 or 15 minutes about who would build the cars and engines, and who the crew chief might be.

Then Ganassi pops open the briefcase and throws four contracts on the table, tells Johnson to fill in what he believes his salary should be, and to sign them.

Shocked, Johnson asks to read the documents, to show his attorney, to take them home for some consideration first. Nope. Deal or no deal, kid. Now or never.

Johnson couldn’t sign it. It didn’t feel right. Again, he’d be leaving Chevy.

Johnson says Ganassi said thank you, exited the airport, boarded his plane and left.

No deal.

Johnson wasn’t pleased. He was anxious and extremely frustrated by the meeting, and concerned that he’d thrown away his only shot. A Cup Series opportunity is the dream of every stock car racer from Lake Norman to Lake Tahoe. There may never be another opportunity.

Fortunately for Johnson, Ganassi was the leverage he needed at Hendrick.

Johnson had a long-standing relationship with Hendrick Motorsports. In April 1997, the Johnson home phone rings in the wee hours of the night. His parents were standing there, bleary-eyed, pissed off.

The person on the other end is Jimmy Johnson. He is looking for Jimmie Johnson.

Jimmy was an HMS executive. He informed Jimmie that there was a Saturday night short-track-series race car in North Carolina, which Jimmie could run anytime he wanted, as much as he wanted, every night if he wished.

Jimmie bought a one-way ticket to North Carolina. He ran a few races, but the relationship was short-lived. The team was outmanned. More often than not Johnson and his girlfriend were pushing the car through the pits and up into prerace technical inspection.

Once, at Hickory Motor Speedway, there was a timing mix-up. The team owner told Johnson the time he believed the track opened. It was actually the time practice began. Johnson stood outside the wall and watched.

He knew the venture was over.

“I called Jimmy and said, ‘Look man, I can’t do this anymore,'” Jimmie says. “‘I’m a pro. This isn’t pro.'”

In the years that followed — based largely on Ricky Hendrick’s urging — there was discussion between Johnson’s attorney, Alan Miller, and the Hendrick camp about a letter of intent. Johnson had no leverage. But when the Ganassi offer showed up, Miller went straight to HMS.

Meanwhile, Johnson needed advice, so he approached Gordon in a driver’s meeting at Michigan International Speedway. Gordon was very impressed with Johnson’s car control, how he had overachieved in lesser equipment.

Their conversation would change the course of NASCAR history.

“I think that meeting worked out all right for them,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. jokes. “You?”

In a matter of a couple weeks, Hendrick sent a letter of intent. Miller declined, realizing they now had leverage.

Then came a real contract — and history. From 2002 through 2016 in NASCAR’s top series, Johnson accrued 80 wins and seven championships.

“It’s crazy that I’m here, thinking back on all of that stuff,” he says. “I just always went with my heart. That’s it.”

Back in that black Suburban in November, Johnson arrives at Homestead Miami Speedway. He recalls all the success here, the sweet memories.

He drives out onto the racing surface to remind himself of its fissures, bumps, quirks and tendencies. Six times he has raised a championship trophy here. Some of his life’s sweetest memories live inside these walls.

After a few laps, he stops on the track between Turns 1 and 2, just as security vehicles scream up from both sides. The guards, all riled up, wonder aloud if the perpetrator in the Suburban belongs. Upon realizing it’s Johnson, they relent and move along.

There was no question for them: He belongs.

“Watching him all these years has been like having a fine case of great wine in your closet,” Rucker says. “Every time you open a bottle, it’s better than the last one.”

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