Jimmie Johnson haters, meet Jimmie Johnson
Dominance in sport always leads to a certain amount of fan backlash. Lebron James, the preeminent basketball player of his generation, will always have a percentage of the fan base that despises him. After winning three Super Bowls in four years, the New England Patriots have their detractors as well. In NASCAR, Dale Earnhardt Sr. won seven titles and while many still fly his #3 flag, others could never stand him on the track. But few champions in any sport elicit the kind of reaction that Jimmie Johnson gets from much of NASCAR Nation. For those fans clamoring to have a driver who matches personality and talent behind the wheel it's too bad they never met Jimmie Johnson.
With Sunday's win in the AAA 400, Johnson has a total of 65 Sprint Cup series wins in his career. In twelve full seasons, he has 178 top five and 266 top ten finishes and 31 pole position starts. He's never failed to win at least two races over the course of a season and only once has he finished outside of the top five in points. That's all without mentioning the five consecutive Sprint Cup championships he's won to date. At 37 years of age, Johnson still has several competitive years left and is the only driver with a realistic shot to break the record of seven titles shared by Dale Sr. and Richard Petty. That kind of consistent excellence is unheard of in virtually any sport in any era.
Yet there are still some who try to tear down those accomplishments or belittle the driver behind them. They point to crew chief Chad Knaus and opine that Johnson has done little without Knaus on the pit box. Knaus has also been caught with his hand in NASCAR's cookie jar on more than one occasion resulting in various fines and suspensions over the years. The fact that he's won appeals to some of those penalties merely means that the #48 somehow “got away” with something. And the fact that nearly every major team in the garage has likewise been penalized at one point or another is also strangely ignored. The two have become a remarkable pairing but it's ludicrous to say that either one is wholly responsible for the others success.
The single largest criticism of Johnson, however, is that he's “vanilla”. In a world founded by outlaws, he's considered to be a corporate shill, a robotic assassin behind the wheel with little personality and less fan appeal. After all, he's rich and successful, married to a beautiful wife and living the NASCAR dream. He's never been caught doing 100+ mph on a country road, never been involved in a nasty tabloid scandal or struggled through a season full of 25th place finishes. How can the average guy relate to someone like that?
It really is too bad that at some point in the early 2000s the decision was made to sell Johnson as the ultimate cool customer. Was it Hendrick who wanted to market Johnson that way, selling Johnson as a counter-point to the hotheads of NASCAR's late 90's? Was it Johnson himself, trying to allay the natural skepticism of sponsor Lowe's in buying into a little-known rookie? We'll never know. But the end result was a caricature easy for race fans to latch on to even if the reality was a little different.
Consider just how Johnson celebrated his first Sprint Cup title. Less than a month after winning the title, Johnson broke his wrist. Not practicing in a race car, mind you, but from falling off of the top of a golf cart. He spent the entire night after Homestead celebrating- then willed his way through an entire day of media appearances wondering whether he was hung over or still blitzed. Brad Keselowski was both hailed and mocked for his beer-swilling appearance on SportsCenter last year yet he was merely following a trail Johnson laid out years before.
Other sides of his personality never seem to gain the same level of traction as compared to other drivers. When Kyle Busch flips someone the bird, it's replayed over and over again as an example of how “immature” and “out of control” he is. Yet Johnson's single finger salute has occurred on more than one occasion, including one shot at Juan Pablo Montoya at Charlotte while Johnson's car slid sideways at over 180 MPH. After Richmond, many NASCAR fans talked about how they hated the multi-car teams and the concept of teammates working together. Yet he's gone door to door with his teammates on more than one occasion, including a Texas race that had many wondering if the 24 and 48 could still co-exist. He's even engaged in some “Boys, have at it” banging with Kurt Busch, not something for the weak at heart.
Jimmie Johnson gets into the "Boys, have at it" spirit
Johnson also has a lively sense of humor. At a recent pre-race appearance at the Dover International Speedway, he fielded questions from a number of different fans. He jokingly talked about having to lie to fans at other tracks (“Well, at Las Vegas I have to say 'Other than Vegas, Dover is probably my favorite.' Now I can just say Dover!”) as well as playfully responding to a female admirers's question (“Does your husband know you feel that way?”).
Most of all, Johnson still clearly carries a burning desire to win. Whether it's NASCAR's premier event in Daytona, an All Star Race with no points on the line or the past weekend's race in Dover, Jimmie needed no rule change to go all-in. Look at the pictures from Victory Lane this year and you'll see a guy no less happy than the one who burst onto the NASCAR scene in 2002 with three wins as a rookie. He's the only driver with his own PS3 game and the very title speaks to his need to win- “Jimmie Johnson's Anything With An Engine”. At the aforementioned pre-race chat, someone asked why he liked Dover so much. Johnson looked at the fan like a dog watching a card trick. “Um, because I win here,” was his almost puzzled reply.
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Jimmie tells JPM he's #1- at 180 miles per hour
Many in NASCAR's fan base lament the loss of the past generation of drivers who cared little for what others thought and focused solely on winning races. They pine for an era when a driver didn't fear the long arm of NASCAR policing their every comment. Yet in the same breath those fans will call Johnson “vanilla” and wish that drivers would show a little more personality. It's an almost impossible balance to strike; drivers such as Johnson and Kenseth are branded boring while others such as the Busch brothers are threatened with sponsor boycotts based on rough language and hard racing.
Johnson seems to let much of the criticism roll off his back. Coming from a relatively quiet upbringing in California, he's reached a level of success that few others before him have achieved. He has the opportunity to find more still. Maybe time will allow future generations of NASCAR fans to look back and marvel at his career the way fans today look back at Petty, Cale Yarborough and others. Maybe not. Either way, it's too bad that the critics of today haven't taken the time to get to know Jimmie Johnson. They just might like that guy.