SAN DIEGO – Back in his hometown to raise money for charity, Jimmie Johnson made sure there was no tomfoolery when he traded his No. 48 stock car for a golf cart.
The defending Nextel Cup series champion, who grew up riding dirt bikes in the desert east of San Diego, hosted his first Jimmie Johnson Foundation golf tournament on Wednesday.
Including a dinner and auction on Tuesday night, he anticipates the event could raise as much as $500,000 to build houses for Habitat for Humanity in the eastern suburb of El Cajon, where he went to high school.
The good news for racing fans is that Johnson came out unscathed.
“Yeah, no injuries,” he said.
At Atlanta Braves pitcher Mike Hampton’s charity golf tournament in December, Johnson was coaxed into surfing on top of his golf cart. He fell off, broke his wrist and created a scandal worthy of any good NASCAR champion.
“I anticipated some type of contraption on the golf cart from my friends, but luckily they couldn’t get out early enough to rig something up,” said Johnson, who was joined on the course by a handful of NASCAR drivers.
Besides, he’s got racin’ to do this weekend up the freeway at Fontana in both the Busch and Nextel Cup series races.
Johnson will try for his second consecutive Nextel Cup title when the Chase for the championship begins next month in New Hampshire. Although he’s currently sixth in the standings, the field will be reset at the start of the Chase and seeded based on bonus points accumulated through “regular season” victories.
Johnson is tied with teammate Jeff Gordon for a series-best four wins, and if the season started today, would begin the Chase tied for the lead.
After Fontana, the regular season ends the following weekend at Richmond, Va.
“Knowing that all I’ve got to do is start these two events, it’s all about a victory,” Johnson said. “Now that we’re locked in, we need every point that we can for the Chase. So if we can get in there and win a race, gamble on fuel, gamble on tires, do something to win a race, it’s 10 more points for the Chase is what we’re after.”
Later Wednesday, Johnson hung out at Petco Park with high school buddy Marcus Giles, the San Diego Padres’ second baseman.
Johnson got an adrenaline rush when he stood in against ace Jake Peavy during the right-hander’s bullpen session. Johnson faced 15 pitches, both left-handed and right-handed.
“It was awesome,” Johnson said, who was dressed more for the beach – “flip-flops, no helmet. Full California style.”
Peavy threw one pitch behind Johnson.
“He had a straight face. I’m not sure if he did that on purpose,” Johnson said. “I’m sure he can put the ball wherever the hell he wants. So I still don’t know if that was him trying to get me to run like a girl, or if it slipped.”
Peavy, a NASCAR fan who grew up in Alabama, threw the pitch behind Johnson to see how the driver would react.
“I tell you what, he had no fear, I can promise you that,” Peavy said. “Which I guess if you go around the track at 200 mph, slamming into walls and wrecking cars, how can you have fear of a little baseball hitting you? He wasn’t standing off the plate. The guy was digging in, flip-flops and all.”
On Tuesday, Johnson visited his alma mater, Granite Hills High, where he was inducted into its Hall of Fame. He made a donation to the school’s shop class through his sponsor, Lowe’s, and drove his race car onto the track at the football stadium.
“Did a doughnut for them – get the kids excited. Threw dust and rocks and dirt everywhere.”
Johnson had a modest upbringing in Crest, an unincorporated area just east of El Cajon. 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 said he and his wife, Chandra, will raise enough money for at least one house for Habitat for Humanity.
“The way things have gone, maybe we can get two or three homes built,” he said.
“Today’s really a vision I’ve had for a while,” Johnson said. “My wife and I wanted to give back to the places where we grew up and where we live. So we have Charlotte under control, where we live now; this event kicked off things here in San Diego; then we hope next year to do something in Oklahoma for my wife in the area where she grew up.”
AP Auto Racing Writer Jenna Fryer contributed to this report.