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Who says machines can’t care?

- tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com
Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011

One reason NASCAR fans like NASCAR is the machines. Cars look like cars. You can see yourself driving one. You can’t help but turn your head when a race car speeds past.

This is one more reason to like Jimmie Johnson. Rick Hendrick says Johnson is a machine.

I ask for an example.

"We had our (Hendrick Motorsports) kickoff lunch (Tuesday),” says Hendrick. “Jimmie didn’t have any carbs. He said he couldn’t have any. He had to run 12 miles in 90 minutes.”

Hendrick shakes his head.

“Jimmie and (fellow Hendrick driver) Mark Martin eat their food out of a bag. They’re so fit. Jimmie wants to hit his peak performance at this time of the day at this part of the race.”

The 24 Hours of Daytona is Jan. 29-30 at Daytona International Speedway. To prepare his body for the grueling two-day race, with two teammates this year instead of the three to which he is accustomed, Johnson is eating a diet free of carbohydrates. He subsists on chicken and egg whites.

Machines don’t care what you put in them as long as it puts them in position to win.

Johnson has won five straight NASCAR Sprint Cup championships, a number that is phenomenal no matter how many times you read it, hear it or say it.

After winning the fifth, Hendrick says Johnson immediately began to train for the sixth.

Thousands of fans wish Johnson would stop. He is the driver who gets booed even though he doesn’t take a theatrical bow after a victory.

Yet up close and personal you would have to work to dislike him. Johnson is courteous. He’s understated. He’s humble. He’s shy.

Also, there’s lot of food laid out when the media gathers Wednesday at Hendrick Motorsports. Because it does not include chicken or egg whites, we don’t have to share it with Johnson.

Somebody asks him about his story.

“I like the story,” he says. “I’m not sure everybody else does.”

Johnson, 35, adds that Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon were booed. Johnson wasn’t around during Richard Petty’s long heyday, but he suspects Petty was, too.

“There’s good and bad that comes with it,” Johnson says about success. “And it’s not necessarily bad.”

Only when the streak ends will the number and the driver be appreciated.

Look at the stars on stage Wednesday at Hendrick Motorsports – Johnson, Gordon, Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Look at the stars on other teams – Kevin Harvick, Kurt and Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards.

There’s so much talent in and beneath the cars, in the shop and in the boardroom. And one team can win four straight?

The moderator at Wednesday’s news conference inadvertently credits Johnson with four consecutive championships.

“Five,” says Gordon. “Not that I’m keeping track.”

The fifth was the beauty because, unlike the others, it looked difficult. Johnson trailed Hamlin by 15 points going into the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He won by 39.

Johnson even talked a little trash before the last race. He gently pushed Hamlin into position to become undone, a nudge rather than a bump, and Hamlin complied.

“It was by far the most impactful championship I had,” says Johnson.

Detractors hope the new points system impacts Johnson’s quest for another. But he’ll adjust. It’s not as if he’ll be walking on eggshells, or egg whites.

“I’m tired of chicken and egg whites,” Johnson says.

He was especially tired Tuesday night when his wife, Chandra, dined on pasta.

“She ate it right in front of me,” Johnson says.

A machine wouldn’t care what his wife ate. A hard-working and enormously talented driver might.

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