EL CAJON, Calif. – Jimmie Johnson likes to give back to his hometown, then come back to see how the money is spent.
On Tuesday, that meant pulling into a school yard in a replica of his No. 48 Chevrolet, thrilling several hundred students at Emerald STEM Magnet Middle School in this blue-collar community on the eastern edge of San Diego's suburban sprawl.
A few minutes later, Johnson and his wife, Chandra, were in the automation and robotics lab watching 13-year-old J.T. Duboise demonstrate a computer-controlled model car.
Duboise told Johnson he thought about adding a horn, then decided against it.
"Who wants a horn?" Johnson replied, reassuring the eighth grader that his car was just fine.
The lab, which includes a new computer system, was built with $100,000 from the Jimmie Johnson Foundation/Lowe's Toolbox for Education Champions Grants. It was the largest of nearly $500,000 worth of grants distributed in the San Diego area from the proceeds from Johnson's 2009 golf tournament and dinner-auction. He'll host this year's golf tournament on Wednesday in Del Mar.
"Today's the best day," said Johnson, who made the visit during a brief break from his pursuit of a fifth straight NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. "It's a fun journey to put together an event to raise the money, but then when you're able to grant the money, you experience a good high from that. To actually come and see the money after it's been put in play is a whole new experience.
"It's just amazing to see it come together," Johnson said. "It makes me kind of want to go back to school. This looks like a lot of fun. I think we were just trying to figure out how to type in school, and now kids are running software programs, CAD programs. It's pretty amazing to see how advanced kids are."
Although the Johnsons live in Charlotte, N.C., the driver hasn't forgotten his hometown, where he had a modest upbringing. His mother drove a school bus and his father operated heavy equipment. His dad worked in the racing community, which led to the son getting his start.
Johnson's foundation has given another $400,000 in grants to schools in Oklahoma, Chandra's home state, and North Carolina.
"Those three points of interest for us warm our hearts and really occupy a lot of our free time, trying to raise the money, select the grants, and come and visit the schools and see what's going on," Johnson said. "It's been a lot of fun."
Duboise, who wants to be a mechanical engineer, said he didn't know a lot about Johnson or NASCAR until he built his car in the lab.
"I thought it was really great that he came back and helped his people," Duboise said. "Jimmie Johnson, in my opinion, is a very generous, giving and wonderful man. He's really changed my life."
Getting to show off his car to Johnson "was like a dream," Duboise said. "He's a race car driver, and I got to show him a model of an actual car, so we kind of like corresponded and like, he understood everything I was saying. I actually got to talk to a famous person. It was just like, crazy."
Johnson has also helped raise $880,000 for four Habitat for Humanity houses in El Cajon.
The next race in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship is Sunday at Fontana, Johnson's home track.
"The season's been tough on us," Johnson said. "We've had our slow spots. These last two weeks we've had great finishes, but they were very, very long weekends trying to find speed in the car. But we're getting it done when it counts and collecting points."
Johnson, the Sprint Cup points leader, has been able to find speed at Fontana.
"There's a few tracks every driver and team will go to, and it works for them. And Fontana has been that for me," he said. "We need it. We need to score some more points. It's so tight from first to probably sixth or eighth right now, that we can't afford a 15th-place finish. We've had our mulligan, I think, with a 25th-place finish at Loudon. We need to keep winning races and running in the top five."