DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – One of NASCAR's biggest winners, Jimmie Johnson wants his NASCAR family to join him in becoming big losers.
By losing weight.
By losing a defeatist attitude.
By losing the excuses that prevent them from striving for improved physical and mental health.
Johnson, a six-time NASCAR champion, has started a movement that could end with his fans — and maybe even some who love to hate him — in a personal fitness victory lane.
Johnson has championed physical fitness with the voice he's earned as a surefire NASCAR Hall of Fame driver. Johnson long ago traded his race helmet for a bicycle helmet during off hours at the track and put a twist on his Sunday finish line by running marathons before races.
At 40, Johnson is in peak physical condition; a beast behind the wheel of the No. 48 Chevrolet and on the bike on the open roads.
He founded the Jimmie Johnson Foundation Wellness Challenge in 2014 and has made a renewed push for his fans and friends to come along for the ride and get into shape.
"It's tough to always watch what you're eating, get your shoes on and go for a walk if you don't have motivation," Johnson said.
Johnson has a trio of events planned this year in North Carolina, including a 5K walk/run in May, a sprint triathlon in July and a final sprint triathlon in September. He launched an app to help participants train for the events that contain "workout programs, helpful tips, and personalized video messages that will motivate you to accomplish your goals."
Johnson took Stewart-Haas Racing crew chief Tony Gibson under his wing and put a program in place that helped him shed about 30 pounds. Johnson even offered guidance to several media members, some who shared their personal stories at Daytona International Speedway. With long hours at the track, and idle time on the road, it's easy to fuel up on chicken wings, potato skins and piles of cheese fries instead of choosing healthy alternatives.
"If you want to get fit, you want to focus on wellness. I'm a resource. I'm here," Johnson said.
Johnson's run at a record-tying seventh championship also seems in pretty good shape these days, too.
He won five races and reeled off 14 top-five finishes in a 2015 season that saw his championship pursuit come to a screeching halt in the third Chase for the Sprint Cup championship race. He entered Dover fifth in the standings and, with 10 career wins at the track, seemed a lock to advance in an elimination race. His Chevy was forced off the track for 36 laps with a torn rear axle seal and his title shot was gone.
Johnson won championships in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2013, putting him one shy of matching Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most on the career list.
"We had the pace, we had the equipment to make it to Homestead," Johnson said. "You've got to be clean all the way through those 10 races and buttoned-up on all fronts. We'll do a better job of that this season."
Johnson won a drawing for the pole Saturday night in the Sprint Unlimited, the exhibition race that kicks off the season. He's a two-time Daytona 500 champion.
Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. enter Daytona as the faces of the sport in the wake of Jeff Gordon's retirement and an injury that has indefinitely sidelined Tony Stewart.
If Johnson is racing toward retirement, he's kept that a secret.
"I won't mention to Jimmie Johnson that he's going to retire any time soon. I don't think I've heard that from him," NASCAR chairman Brian France said.
Johnson started swimming a few years ago and his laps in the pool completely eliminated the lower-back discomfort he felt from riding scrunched behind the wheel for hundreds of laps each weekend.
"I didn't realize I was capable of those things," Johnson said.
But he achieved his goals and wants to become a Jack LaLanne of sorts in NASCAR, a fitness freak in a firesuit who can leave a lasting legacy well beyond his greatness on the track.