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‘Scared to death’ Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson tackles challenge of being SportsCenter’s first athlete guest host

As a NASCAR driver, Jimmie Johnson works in a profession that is not for the fainthearted. By definition, the six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion is as brave as they come. Still, when the red light goes on in the SportsCenter studio tonight (6 p.m. ET, ESPN; re-air, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2) and he is introduced as the first-ever athlete to be a guest host on the show, Johnson might need a bucket for the flop sweat.

“I am scared to death,” Johnson said. “I have a hard enough time at the podium reading a simple acceptance speech. To be on a live show trying to read a teleprompter is one of the most nerve-racking things I’ll do.”

Johnson loves challenges, so it’s understandable he would want to do something totally unique for an athlete after winning his sixth Sprint Cup title this past Sunday.

Jimmie Johnson and Lindsay Czarniak on the SportsCenter set. (Joe Faraoni/ESPN Images)
NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson and anchor Lindsay Czarniak on the “SportsCenter” set from a previous Johnson visit. (Joe Faraoni/ESPN Images)

When he joins regular anchors John Anderson and Lindsay Czarniak, Johnson will become only the third celebrity guest host in the show’s 34-year history. Actors Billy Crystal and Ken Jeong were the first two.

Johnson’s guest hosting came about after some discussions involving NASCAR, Johnson’s management team and Jack Obringer, senior coordinating producer of SportsCenter.

“We’ve been working on [having Johnson co-host] for a while,” Johnson said. “With [daughter] Lydia’s birth, we weren’t able to pull it off earlier in the year. I was relieved of my obligation at the time. But it’s shown back up and I’m honored to do it.”

“In an effort to do something new and leverage Jimmie’s comfort and familiarity on the SportsCenter set, we began exploring the idea of having him guest host back in February,” said Scott Warfield, NASCAR Director, Broadcast and Entertainment Communications. “As summer gave way to fall and a sixth championship appeared to be in the 48 team’s sights, the plans were finalized, contingent on him winning the championship.”

Obringer said Johnson will present news and highlights and conduct interviews, as well as be involved in the building of the show.

“He’ll have the same experience in prep and creative conversation as any other SportsCenter anchor,” said Obringer, whose 6 p.m. show also had Crystal and Jeong. “We’re always looking for opportunities to change it up and give SportsCenter viewers a different take on the day’s news, have some fun and do some memorable television. And having a six-time champion like Jimmie Johnson on your set is pretty cool.”

Lindsay Czarniak discusses Jimmie Johnson

Editor’s note: ESPN SportsCenter anchor Lindsay Czarniak has worked with and interviewed Jimmie Johnson many times, both in her current role and in previous positions as a motorsports pit reporter and host. Her take on her new “co-worker”:

I’ve known Jimmie for probably around a decade because once I got my start in racing, I met him early on. I think he’s tremendous, not only as a talented driver, but he’s also really funny and he’s a great person.

I have one specific memory that really made a huge impact on me. There was an incident that happened at a race in Daytona. The race did not end well for him. I was pit reporting and basically my job was to charge after him and try to get him to talk on TV. He drove his car into the garage area and headed straight for the motorhome lot, and I was chugging along after him with my camera crew trying to catch him.

He turned around and made it clear he wasn’t going to talk that day. But the very next week, he found me at the track, tapped me on the shoulder and apologized to me. He said he had just been emotionally spent at that point.

That was the first time anyone had ever done that to me. The drivers are always so accessible and good to work with. That’s one of the things I’ve always loved about NASCAR. He went out of his way to apologize, and that’s the kind of character he has.

How will he do as a SportsCenter guest host?
I think he’ll be terrific and I look forward to seeing what he has to offer to the role. I know he’s a big sports fan, but as I said, he’s funny and it’ll be fun to see how he reacts and what he brings. He might even have his own highlights. I would say he’s a natural and he does pretty well at everything he puts his mind to.

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