LONG POND, Pa. -- Armed with her Canon 1DX Mark II camera, Liz Kreutz felt as if her heart were in her throat as Jimmie Johnson inched the Chevy Suburban toward the Homestead track wall as if he were racing for the 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 the car and track.
Kreutz, who has 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 of course, 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 someday 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, Sonoma 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 at some point 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.
He'll need help from his wife, Chandra, and his two daughters to pick a winner. Johnson is torn on his favorite photo from the project ("Liz had a machine gun on her camera"), though he was partial toward a snapshot from photographer 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.
The champ invited Clinch to Colorado for a day before shooting the Brickyard 400 in Indy. Clinch caught a shot of the family walking on a street; oldest daughter Evie with a bright smile on her dad's shoulders as she covers his eyes; Chandra clutching Lydia upside down and around the waist.
"That's the chaos of Team Johnson," Johnson said, laughing.
One problem -- the image was so large, Johnson failed to get all four family members to fit inside his social media avatar photos.
"At first glance, he's such a normal-type guy," Clinch said. "I'm sure he's got to be fiercely competitive. But he really doesn't come off that way."
Johnson and the photographers have no set plans how to use the thousands of pictures.
"I hope that it shows a soulful side of who he is in a way that's interesting," Clinch said.
Chandra Johnson owns an art shop in Charlotte, North Carolina, and some of the work could end up displayed there.
Who knows? The next photographer could be Johnson himself.
"In our family, I'm the one that gets the equipment, usually takes the photos, downloads them, archives them," he said. "But I'm no means pro caliber."
Kreutz's favorite photo is one she didn't even take at Homestead. A fellow photographer persuaded her to join Johnson in victory lane for the souvenir snap. She later received a print in the mail signed by Johnson.
"Liz, the good luck charm. Jimmie Johnson."