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Johnson turns lens on his life

Profile image for Dan Gelston
Dan Gelston, Associated Press

LONG POND, Pa. -- Armed with her Canon 1DX Mark II camera, Liz Kreutz felt like her heart was in her throat as Jimmie Johnson inched the Chevrolet Suburban toward the Homestead track wall as if he was racing for a championship.

Kreutz's nerves heightened as Johnson took the photographer for a spin with his right hand on the wheel while he gestured with the left as he explained the physics of car and track.

Kreutz, who's had a front-row seat shooting some of the biggest stars in sports, from Manny Pacquiao to Lance Armstrong, steeled herself from the back seat and snapped away to document a candid look at NASCAR's seven-time champion.

"He's out for a Sunday ride and I'm gripping the side," Kreutz said of her ride on the final 2016 race weekend. "But to be there with the No. 1 driver and have him just explaining the sport to me was an incredible experience."

Johnson has opened the doors to his personal and professional life to select photographers for an all-access look at what drives the 41-year-old married father of two on race weekends. Johnson has let renowned photographers and amateurs chronicle his run toward NASCAR history from all angles: team meetings, family time, bike rides and a championship celebration.

"As I'm getting toward the end of my career, it was just one of those things where I wanted to capture more images," he said. "With the world of social media, sure we can use those images and help tell the story of the weekend and have some fun with it. But just for my own archives and my own selfish reasons down the road, to have an opportunity to work with these great photographers and just capture all that stuff and have it, I know some day I'm going to be flipping through all these images and just love it."

Johnson hired Kreutz to shoot the 2016 championship race at Homestead when he tied Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with his seventh title. He stretched the project into this season and has had photographers snap away at Daytona, Talladega, Pocono, Sears Point and Indianapolis. The photographers help run Johnson's social media accounts during select "takeovers."

"The team meetings sometimes can be a little sensitive," he said. "But anything they ask for, we try to give it to them."

He has no photographers lined up for the rest of the season. But Johnson, the 2009 AP Male Athlete of the Year, would love for the season finale to come down to a photo finish.

"We want to be one of the final four at Homestead and we'll want to shoot that again," he said.

Johnson has some altruistic motives behind the project -- he has asked three pro photographers (he's looking for a fourth) to each choose an amateur to also shoot a race this season. After the four amateur photographers have had a chance to attend and shoot a race, Johnson will select the one with the best image for a $10,000 grant.

Johnson was partial toward a snapshot from Danny Clinch. Clinch, a frequent Pearl Jam collaborator and the official backstage photographer for the Grammys since 2003, clicked with Johnson when they met at a Jack Johnson concert.

Wife, Chandra Johnson, owns an art shop in Charlotte, North Carolina, and some of the work could end up there.