Reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson has revealed that he underwent minor surgery for bilateral hernias at the end of last season.
Despite the intense press coverage of NASCAR that rarely misses any related story, this one had been hitherto unsuspected until Johnson himself disclosed it in a pre-race interview just before the start of Sunday's FedEx 400 at Dover International Speedway.
He said there hadn't been any particular intention to keep the non-invasive laparoscopic (keyhole) procedure secret and that many people in the NASCAR paddock had known about it.
"I didn't realize it was, one, a secret, or two, public information. Have you had any surgeries lately? Is there any procedures ... When did you have your teeth cleaned?" Johnson countered when asked why he hadn't revealed the surgery before now. "Surprised nobody knew about this thing sooner. It wasn't a secret by any stretch of the imagination."
The surgery was scheduled for the day after the official 2013 winners banquet at the start of December, and Johnson said he was back in training ten days later having skipped a post-season test at Charlotte Motor Speedway where NASCAR was working on developing the 2014 rules package.
"Got home Sunday and then went in Monday morning following the banquet," he explained. "I had bilateral hernias, one on each side, and then a third one in my belly button, so I was very lucky to go in and have all three fixed.
"It wasn't a sports hernia, it was something over time and getting older that something like 60 percent of men near the age of 40 have these and don't know," he continued. "But I saw one mid‑season, a little protrusion in my skin and went and had it checked out, and they're like, you've got a couple years to get it fixed, so I figured I'd get it fixed sooner rather than later and went in right after the banquet.
"That kind of led to us missing out on some of the test sessions that went on during the winter months, but we felt like it was time to shut things down and let the team kind of recoup and then just got back after it after that," he said. "First couple days sucked, there's no doubt about that, but then quickly it got back together.
"Three opportunities for us to go test were out the window, and I do feel like that hurt us some and had us behind a little bit, especially once we did get to Nashville and were there and the #4 car was there testing," he said, adding that as well as the Charlotte session he also missed two further private team test sessions because of bad weather, admitting that this had potentially put him on the back foot going into 2014. "We knew we had a gap to make up, and those guys were off to a quick start. I think it was a combination of some bad weather and then my procedure."
Johnson's long-time crew chief Chad Knaus said that as far as he was concerned the procedure had zero effect on the #48 team's approach to the 2014 season.
"The only thing from my standpoint that set us back for the 2014 season was just us going for the championship in 2013, and that's it," he insisted. "When you are fortunate enough to battle for a championship, your main focus goes solely on trying to win a championship, so as we were going through and pursued the 2013 season championship, we lost focus on 2014. But that's just inherent. That's what happens because you have to focus on the goal that's directly in front of you.
"I didn't care about anything that we were doing to prepare for 2014," he added. "It was the furthest thing in my mind for the last three months of last year.
"We're still behind, I think we're behind on just a little bit of everything," he admitted. "I feel like we've got a long ways to go yet to understand exactly what we need. With the new ride height changes and rules that they've got out there, it's a different animal, and I know it's difficult to understand and it's not easy for everybody to understand, but it does change the way you approach a race car. The advantages that we had last year were minimized with these new rules, so we've got to try to find some new advantages and new ways to get the car set up to where Jimmie is happy with it."
The thought that the Johnson and the #48 team are yet to peak when they've just claimed back-to-back dominant wins at Charlotte and Dover will doubtless send alarm bells ringing up and down his rivals' garages.
Just a couple of weeks ago pundits were muttering about Johnson having gone off the boil and not being as good as he was; now they're fretting instead about the 38-year-old's domination of the sport and wondering whether anyone can stop him from marching inexorably to his seventh Sprint Cup championship come November.
"We've got some good tracks ahead for us," grinned Johnson, adding ominously: "We can get on a roll."