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KELLEY: Getting Back Up When You Fall

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — My husband always says, as he watches me snow ski with limited skill, “If you’re not falling, you’re not trying.” To which I always reply, “Why in the world would I WANT to fall?”

It’s an interesting topic for discussion: Is it better to be good at something you can do without much effort or better to struggle at something that requires you to reach outside your wheelhouse?

Jimmie Johnson may already know the answer.

At 45 years old, the most-decorated NASCAR driver of his generation is about to be a rookie in a series entirely new to him. Johnson is scheduled to make his first of 13 NTT IndyCar Series starts on April 18 at Alabama’s Barber Motorsports Park.

After competing in the Rolex 24 At Daytona for the first time in a decade during January, Johnson said the very idea of being uncomfortable in a new arena is the exciting part for him.

Sounds like he skis down the same Black Diamonds as my husband.

And so does Ryan Newman.

Coming full circle, Newman and Johnson were both rookies in the NASCAR Cup Series in 2002. (By the way, if you are asked which of the two won rookie of the year, don’t say the seven-time champ. The answer is Newman.)

I remember it well because that was my rookie year working in the Cup Series, too.

Maybe that’s why witnessing and covering Newman’s miraculous come­back from his crash at the end of last year’s Daytona 500 and Johnson’s anticlimactic goodbye felt very personal for me.

My phone rang moments after the 2020 Daytona 500 ended. I wasn’t scheduled to be working the next day, but I was asked by my boss at NBC if I would fly to Charlotte to anchor the studio show … not knowing what kind of news I’d be delivering.

Luckily, for every NASCAR fan, and especially for Newman and his family, the news was the very best kind. I spent the rest of the season in awe of Ryan’s resilience.

Six months later, while anchoring that same show following the regular season finale, I felt disappointment when the playoff field was set. “It should be Jimmie,” I heard myself mutter under my breath, while watching the post-race festivities unfold.

But why? Sports and life don’t work that way. The prince doesn’t always rescue the fair maiden. So why am I wanting — needing — Jimmie to fit a script I have prematurely written?

Then, I walked past the mirror and I saw the same lines on my face. I realized I am Jimmie Johnson — without the seven championships, of course.

I distinctly remember standing in Daytona’s garage on a February afternoon in 2002 interviewing a young driver after he won the pole for the Daytona 500. We were both as green as the flag he would lead the field under.

My hair was short, but my ambitions were long.

I was there when Jimmie won all seven of his championships.

When he stood on that championship stage answering my questions and lifting yet another NASCAR trophy, I stood silently behind him, smiling proudly.

Four years later, I wanted to tell Jimmie to hold his head high, that his final season in no way symbolizes his achievements and his legacy.

And then I wondered, what if, this “failure” cements his championship status even more?

In a world where ribbons are handed out for participation, Jimmie is once again teaching us, without even realizing it. And so is Ryan Newman.

They are showing young athletes and older television reporters that the outcome isn’t always what you want and how you react to — and, hopefully, rise above — day-to-day challenges, even a job change, says as much about their character as victories do. Both have clearly shown that the word champion means much more than winning on the track.

It means getting up when staying down would be much easier.

In January, while turning left and right in a sports car, Jimmie Johnson said being out of his comfort zone makes him feel more alive than he has felt in quite some time.

So much so, that he announced he’s returning to that IMSA car and team for the remaining three Michelin Endurance Cup races this season.

I’d venture to say that same feeling is what he’ll get later this month when he turns left and right again, this time in Alabama aboard a Chip Ganassi Racing Indy car.

Ryan Newman will also be in Alabama in April. He’ll be racing at more than 200 mph at Talladega Superspeedway. It’s what makes him feel alive, too.

I don’t need to tell my fellow rookies from 2002 to hold their heads high; they already know.

The three of us aren’t finished with our stories yet, even if we have to fall down a ski run from time to time.

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