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Why is there no love for Jimmie Johnson?

20 October 2009

Maybe it's time for Jimmie Johnson to get mean – in a roundabout way, that might earn the three-time defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion the appreciation he deserves.

Johnson stands at history's doorstep. Ninety points to the good with five races left in the 2009 Chase, he is all-but certain to win an unprecedented fourth straight title. Sure, a freak part failure could derail the juggernaut, but three winning years in the heat of the Chase have immunised Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus against self-inflicted catastrophe.

Invariably, when disaster does strike, Johnson and Knaus deal with it surgically. Emblematic is the 2006 race at Indianapolis, where Johnson blew a tyre and lost a lap, but rallied from 39th position to win the race.

So why is there a groundswell of sentiment throughout the grandstands and throughout the garage hoping that, at some point in the next five races, Johnson and Knaus will encounter a problem they can't overcome? Why yearn for a 'better story' when you're watching history unfold in front of you? Could it be that Johnson simply isn't nasty enough to inspire the passions of the fan base?

No-one – on this side of the ocean, at least – seemed to mind when Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France a record seven straight times. Tiger Woods has a legion of fans who would love to see him win every golf tournament he enters.

Johnson's accomplishments, however, haven't captivated the psyche of fans within the sport, much less on a broader scale. After winning for the third time in five Chase races last Saturday at Lowe's Motor Speedway, Johnson was accused during the post-race question-and-answer session of 'stinking up the show' with his dominating performance. The Californian countered with the same argument his friend and fellow Chase driver Brian Vickers had made two weeks earlier.

“I mean, I guess I don't understand why people would have a problem with it,” confessed the 34-year-old, who has won 17 of 55 Chase races since the play-off system was introduced in 2004. “Everybody tunes in to watch Tiger win; everybody tunes in to watch [Roger] Federer do his thing on certain courts.

“I'm just doing my thing. I think there are a lot of fans out there that are excited to see what this 48 car is doing, and a lot of people are happy and rooting for us to win a fourth. The rest of them – oh, well...”

Unlike Armstrong, Woods and Federer, though, Johnson hasn't transcended his own sport. Though he is the reigning Cup champion three times over, it's safe to say the average sports fan would be more likely to recognise Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Tony Stewart.

Johnson fights a 'vanilla' image of political correctness. Those who know him, however, have seen a wilder, more mischievous side to his personality. On the track, Johnson is intensely competitive. Mark Martin likes to refer to his Hendrick team-mate as 'Superman'. Off the track, publicly, he's Clark Kent.

Johnson fights the perception that success has come easy to him. There are those who know otherwise, those who remember the ASA days when he was living hand-to-mouth, sleeping on couches and trying to get his racing career off the ground. Perhaps Johnson's unfailing humility masks the realisation that it took him many years to become an overnight success.

Gordon entered Cup racing as the foil to Dale Earnhardt Sr, and was reviled passionately for stealing the Intimidator's thunder. Johnson has superseded Gordon as the Cup's most prolific winner much more gradually and quietly. The transition hasn't been lost on Hendrick Motorsports team owner Rick Hendrick, whose empathy for Gordon is tempered by the acknowledgement that passing the torch is the natural order of things.

“He (Gordon) has been in that top position just like Jimmie, and one day Jimmie is going to have to face it with somebody else,” Hendrick said. “If you're going to do this long enough, you've got to deal with it.”

Before that happens, Johnson deserves to get the recognition he's due for the Hall of Fame career he's building –without a mean bone in his body.

by Reid Spencer / Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service


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