Jimmie Johnson's Life-Saving Crash

Jimmie Johnson with fans at the Auto Club Speedway in Fonatana, CA. Walter G Arce / Cal Sport Media-AP

As told to Ramin Setoodeh

It was November 1994, and I was driving in a race called the Baja 1,000. It started in Tijuana and ran all the way down the Baja peninsula to La Paz, Mexico. I was 880 miles and 20 hours into it, and of all things, I was leading. I still had a ways to go, and I was exhausted. It was dark, and I was so badly wanting to see the sun come up. I felt like if I made it to sunrise, I'd find some energy again. I didn't make it to sunrise.

I fell asleep around 3 in the morning. One of the innocent head nods you do on the interstate, and it turned into an ordeal. I was driving 90 miles per hour at the time. This was in the mountains—I was working my way out of a mountain range and was finally on a straight road. That's when I just dozed off. I was in high gear. When I fell asleep, I let off the throttle. I was still coasting but at a very high pace. When I woke up, I realized there was a turn in front of me, and there was no way I was going to get the vehicle to stop. I went off the road, and I hit a really big rock. The rock just flipped my truck around, and it started somersaulting in the air. When that happened, I thought I had gone off a cliff. I'm somersaulting in the darkness, wondering how far I'm going to fall. Luckily, it was just a small downhill into a sand wash below. I landed and flipped and tumbled. It was a very bad wreck. The roof smashed down on me and had me pinned in the vehicle, and for awhile I couldn't get out. Fortunately, after finding a way to get my arm free, I was able to get out of the truck. I was OK, just bruised and banged up. Because of our location in the mountains, I couldn't transmit a signal out to anyone. It was 12 hours before anybody found me and a day before I got to the hotel.

That accident was the final in a series of mistakes I had made leading up to that point. I was being too aggressive, not finishing races. I was not looking so good. I had so much pressure to perform. I was the young guy who came in and ran the fastest lap, but I'd crash or break very early.

After the crash, I was just sitting there, staring at the vehicle, internalizing the way I raced. That was my second big wreck of the year. Why did I find myself in this position again? I was scared to death what the car owner would say when he saw his truck. The whole process, the fear I had running through my veins, flipping out—those things hit me deep and changed me as a driver. I needed that wake-up call. Overnight, it changed me from being the young and dumb hot shoe to a thinking-man's racer. Before, I couldn't win championships. Now, I can. I was the hare. I'm the tortoise now.