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Q&A: Jimmie Johnson's Drive for the Mainstream

In the NASCAR world and for many sports fans, Jimmie Johnson is a household name. He has won an unprecedented four straight championships, and has never finished a season out of NASCAR's top five.

But to mainstream America, Johnson's stardom doesn't match that of other elite athletes such as Kobe Bryant or Alex Rodriguez, or even fellow NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. While he seemingly wins races almost at will, he just quietly goes about his business, keeping his name in the sports pages and not the tabloids. Furthermore, Johnson acknowledges there are many mainstream sports fans who still believe that turning a car left for a few hours does not qualify as a sport, or him as an athlete.

Now, he is hoping to do something about all of that. Beginning Jan. 26 at 10 p.m. ET/PT, Johnson will star in the latest installment of HBO's massively acclaimed documentary series 24/7. Instead of leading up to big HBO boxing events, the show for the first time will follow Johnson's preparation for NASCAR's Super Bowl, the Daytona 500.

B&C's Ben Grossman caught up with Johnson to talk about the new series, NASCAR's ratings and why he may soon be ducking flying plates from his wife.

Why would you do a show like this?

I am a boxing fan and loved 24/7, but my wife watched it with me and went from not being interested in boxing to wanting to buy a pay-per-view fight. I said, “That is pretty powerful TV.” And a show like Hard Knocks, if something like that can exist in the NFL, it sure as hell can exist in the NASCAR space.

So, is this a push for you to go more mainstream?

To a degree, yes. There is a sense of mainstream, and you also feel like if it can really capture the sport and really show what it is all about, it can turn casual fans into race fans. We have a big and loyal fan base, but there are critics and people who want to call it not a sport.

But what about you personally; are you doing this show in hopes of taking your popularity to the next level? Especially since you win championships and guys like Dale Earnhardt Jr. have big popularity but don't win races.

The status of the show will definitely help me out on that front. There's things like Junior's legacy, history and personality you can't ignore, and he deserves all the credit for his fan base. But not all the fans out there are Junior fans. The vocal ones sure are. But this show will reach a lot of people who aren't fans, so I should be able to grow my fan base.

The once-astronomical ratings growth of NASCAR has subsided. To what do you attribute that?

If you look at sports, all of TV, ratings are down, so our arc is similar to what everyone else is seeing. We are down, but so is everyone. We're not trying to be fools here; we recognize there have been a lot of changes to our sport in recent years. But in today's world everybody wants drama, sex, drugs, fights, rock-and-roll. There are just so many options on TV that we have to continue to raise the bar and introduce new things to our sport. The economy has hurt the perception of many sports. I know baseball and basketball are struggling; when you see empty seats, you think people aren't interested.

You are about to star in a reality-type show. Do you watch any reality shows?

I have a pregnant wife, so the TV is on all the time, and it's a lot of reality. Lately we've been into The Bachelor.

When my wife was pregnant, I think at times I was dodging plates flying at my head. Are the cameras capturing your personal life, too, as you go through this?

They are. Luckily, my wife has been pretty banged up with morning sickness—though she probably wouldn't like it if I said “luckily”—so she doesn't have the energy to be coming after me. But when she's back up and feeling better, maybe the dishes will be coming at my head, too.