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Fast Take   Story by Dwight Drum
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The champion edge: Force, Johnson & Gordon
[PART 1]

At a fast glance 300 mph versus 200 mph seems like an easy comparison in math until the first is restricted to straight racing and the latter is all about turning left on a superspeedway. It’s an NHRA win light matched with lap speed on NASCAR’s longest tracks. One is two cars, side-by side on two lanes and the other is 43 cars often fighting for the two or three lanes with corners thrown in to disrupt speed.

Similarities exist for these sanctions; both are four wheeled motorsports contested on concrete or asphalt corralled by retaining walls and supported by screaming fans at the professional level. Drivers in both sports certainly have acquired or were born with an exceptional daring spirit that they parlayed into top professional pay. Though it may seem that their passion and bravado exceeds good fortune taking their acquired skills to championships is a level where few go.

Accomplishing multiple championships is an even rarer event. Yet NHRA icon John Force and phenomenon driver Jimmie Johnson winning championships appears routine. Johnson may have had help with this enormous task from lessons by boss and teammate Jeff Gordon. Force has 14 championships, Johnson has three all in a row and Gordon has four in the past. Force was racing hot rods several years before Johnson or Gordon were born, but he is swift to say he lost for 15 years before he won.

As exclusive as this winning club is, these champions have personalities that place them at distant positions of a trait spectrum. Force seems to be always looking for an adequate electrical outlet to download his charged charisma. Johnson is mostly a steady gentleman with a reserved but classy public attitude. Gordon is a marketing dream exuding of confidence with a polished media delivery equaled by few.

All three drivers have excelled beyond their peers via skill and determination

Force had a near career-ending crash at Dallas in 2007 that required lengthy hospitalization and rehabilitation, but he refused to retire. He still has a passion for going to the edge.

All of Johnson’s winning seasons had seesaw performances that defied odds with comeback production.

Four-time champion Jeff Gordon has struggled in recent years but 2009 may be his resurgence as he vaulted to the NASCAR Sprint Cup point lead with top finish consistency. In simple words, he hasn’t forgotten how to get to the edge.

Don’t take any of these words as evidence though; take a look at Force’s energized dialogue, Johnson’s analytical comments and Gordon’s poignant assessments. Be the judge of champions in this two part coverage by seeking revelations and the edge they push. The many reasons for their rare accomplishments can’t be summed up in just the quotes that follow, but their words are telling.

“It’s not just about me,” Force declared. “It’s about three things. It’s about team work, camaraderie and it’s about winning. You’ve done it for your sponsors because corporate America knows what we need – that’s to sell or we can’t be in business.

“The fans love their drivers. They love their cars. They’ll buy our products. That’s what we do. But at the end of the day it’s so exciting to me because I like to win. I like to do it as a team.”

Johnson is quick to explain his feelings about racing.

“I like to keep myself on edge and worry about a lot of things, Johnson said. “I feel that worrying about stuff keeps me focused and keeps me paying attention to the right things.

“I feel like I'm better racing people than I am running a single lap and trying to post the fastest speed,” Johnson continued. “I just enjoy passing people and think I'm a better racer than I am a qualifier. It's just something we've always had."

Johnson has a clear understanding of what got him to this level and he is willing to share it if asked.

“We choose to be in racing,” Johnson admitted. “We've also sacrificed. I don't care whether you're a crew member or crew chief or driver or whatever it is. You want to be here. You've sacrificed a career that was probably going to make more money for you somewhere else because you wanted to go to that short track somewhere and race on Saturday night. As a driver, I didn't go to school. I tried a couple of semesters at a junior college, but it didn't work out. I was all in for racing. So people choose to be here and we like where we're at and we enjoy what we do. I think that has helped our sport grow more than anything.”

Johnson also has good words for the deeds of champion John Force.

"I think we all have a very good sense of when we're fully engaged and dedicated to our sport and what we're doing,” Johnson said. “And there are people who enjoy really trying to stay there year after year and week after week. And there are the few that can do it for decades and John Force is one of those guys. It's really amazing how he has been able to win so many championship and races and be an icon of the sport like he has. But some people like to operate there and that's where they are most comfortable. Force strikes me as an icon for that. The guy has been doing it for ages and loves to really challenge himself and do the best job he can."

Force didn’t just get over his injuries he adapted some of his rehab routine to a workout regimen.

“You’ve got to be physically fit,” Force said. “So as the individual as he gets older if you want to continue to win – it’s like myself, I’m in the gym every day. I gave up two hours in the bar for two hours in the gym. I’ve seen a difference. For me to stay up with the young kids that are 30, I’ve got to stay in the fight game.”

Jeff Gordon often defines his success through the efforts of his team.

“Every race is an adventure, for sure, “Gordon said. “You can't predict these things. You don't know which teams are going to hit on something, and that's going to really fall into place for them, and which teams are going to rise to the occasion, which ones are going to fall by the wayside.

“So maybe our peaks and our valleys might not be as big or drop as much as some others. But I think that it just shows you how competitive things are out there. When a team as strong as ours is getting beat out there, but we know that we've got the ingredients and tools to get it back.”

Getting back is often digging deep. Look for more grit in part two, “Champion edge, part two: John Force, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon

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